A few years ago, if you had told Captain Shaun Turner that he’d be sleeping on a groundsheet on a Haitian airstrip just after Christmas, he’d have looked at you in disbelief. But that’s exactly where he found himself in January 2010 after the monster earthquake struck Haiti.
Turner, 32, had been a small-town parish priest at the church of the Good Shepherd in Emsdale, Ont., near Huntsville, in cottage country. “My wife and I loved the parish and loved the people,” he says. But Turner had always felt drawn to the military and had already looked into joining the chaplaincy. “This is what God called us to do.”
He served as chaplain to a couple of local fire halls and in 2006, joined the Reserves, took basic training and cleared the requirements for the military chaplaincy. Two years ago, he became an army chaplain to the Royal Canadian Dragoons at the base in Petawawa, Ont.
In early January 2010, he had just come back from Christmas leave when he was told to pack his bags. The Disaster Assistance Response Team was leaving for Haiti to help in the aftermath of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. “I was in winter gear, so I called my wife from the base and told her to pull out everything green and leave it on the floor,” says Turner. He packed, took a bus to Trenton, Ont., and the next day was on the first “chalk” (emergency flight) to Haiti in an enormous Globemaster military transport plane along with 130 others and a lot of supplies. After circling for several hours, unable to land at the congested airport in Port-au-Prince, the monster plane finally touched down. “We unloaded everything, put down our groundsheets and collapsed,” says Turner.
His main role was just to be present with and available to the Canadian soldiers, so circulation and rotation were the order of the day. He was there when medical crews picked up the wounded and brought them into the hospital set up at the Canadian embassy. He accompanied the soldiers when they picked up Canadians stranded all over the island. “My job was to work alongside medical staff. I was part orderly, part Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H,” he says. “It was very satisfying work. We ate cold rations out of cans and collapsed on the ground at night.”
After two weeks in Port-au-Prince, the groups moved to Jacmel and set up a clinic beside a filthy river. There, Turner worked alongside the engineers as they installed a water purification system and cleared roads and highways to allow more aid through. He worked in step with security forces so the World Food Program could safely distribute food and other donated items. On Sundays, he took services.
But it was their work in the orphanages that resonated most deeply with him-and the soldiers. “These kids had lost their entire families, but they still had this joy-they were so happy,” recalls the father of two young children. “We shared communion and cried over God’s work together.”
The profound experience brought him back to the power of presiding over the eucharist as an Anglican priest. “One Sunday, the Dragoons asked me to come down to that gnarly river full of garbage for Holy Communion. We cleared the poker chips off the table and shared the communion. The river became our cathedral.”