Turning on a dime

Padre Michelle Staples helps Padre Ger VanSmeerdyk of the Christian Reformed Church deploy to the site of flooding in Manitoba. Photo: contributed
Padre Michelle Staples helps Padre Ger VanSmeerdyk of the Christian Reformed Church deploy to the site of flooding in Manitoba. Photo: contributed
Published October 1, 2011

Mother’s Day was not a laid-back affair for Major Michelle Staples, a senior brigade chaplain based in Edmonton. There was no breakfast in bed. No flowers. Instead, the 45-year-old mother of three helped launch the Canadian Forces’ Manitoba flood relief efforts.

The call came as soldiers in Wainwright, Alta., were ending several months of training. Staples was packing her bags. The chief of staff met her at the door. “You were going home, right?” he said. “But I’m not now, right?” replied Staples.

Her briefing was quick: a faulty gauge had misread rising water levels in Saskatchewan and severe flooding was imminent. Several hundred soldiers were being sent to build and reinforce dikes along the Assiniboine River near Portage La Prairie and Headingly, Man. Chaplains, as always, were needed.

Staples turned around and trekked back to the field-still set up as a training model of Kandahar Airfield. She sat down in a tent and began calling chaplains on a radiophone. The sun was beginning to set.

Rapid response is just one skill that Staples has honed in her varied career. She started as a policewoman in her native England and since joining the military in 2003, she has served in Afghanistan and with Special Operations. In her current role she supervises 17 chaplains and teaches courses that cover everything from family support to how to turn on a dime in deployments-like this one.

“Are your bags packed?” These are the first words Staples said to her chaplains.

The first man was close by, in Wainwright. Staples put him on 30 minutes’ notice, so when he was called in the dead of night, he just rolled up his sleeping bag and went. The second chaplain was travelling to the detention barracks for pastoral ministry when he got the call. He jumped on a bus and made the 12-hour trip to Manitoba.

Chaplains have their supplies close at all times. Their bags also include special chaplain items: a Bible, a black stole (white makes you a target) and a deployable communion kit. This lightweight, camouflaged kit hooks on to a rucksack and is packed with all things needed to transform the back of a jeep into an altar: wafers, a chalice, purificators, etcetera.

Within 24 hours, Staples had four chaplains on the ground in Manitoba. They supported soldiers building dikes and sandbagging on the front lines. They worked with families who had lost homes. They created sacred spaces for soldiers to regroup. At night they slept in tents, cots and school gyms.

Chaplains also continued ministry in Alberta. Led by the Rev. Major Maude Parsons-Horst, who shares leadership with Staples, the home team fielded calls from spouses stressed by the extended absence. Chaplains listened and offered support.

Staples worked two days past the launch, then another chaplain stepped in to take over. The deployment was a success.

“The discipline and the response and joy were just phenomenal,” says Staples of the chaplains’ work. “They were called there to be chaplains to that place and they answered that call.”


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