Chaplain engages in faith-based cooperation

Story and photo by Master Sgt. Jim Fisher
17th Air Force Public Affairs

Religion is central to the lives of people in Africa, said 17th Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Rex Williams. And he should know.

The chaplain has been representing U.S. Africa Command in working with chaplains and religious leaders from across the continent.

He recently joined the U.S. Africa Command’s deputy command chaplain, fellow Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mark Barnes, on two trips to partner nations in Africa.
After traveling to Botswana in March, the pair journeyed to Namibia May 11 to 14 for a comprehensive theater security cooperation event.

The first event focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, one of the three major focus areas of the U.S. Africa Command Chaplain’s Office, and included representatives from 26 African nations currently involved in the program. The second included 20 Namibian chaplains in a symposium on chaplaincy professionalization.

Both events touched on some of the major aspects of U.S. Africa Command’s Chaplain Program, which includes religious leader liaisons as its third focus area.
In Namibia, portions of the four-day event were dedicated to all three areas.

“I think they were very eager to improve their skills,” Chaplain Williams said. “Chaplain Barnes and I expressed to the (Namibian) chaplains our desire to learn from them, because there is so much we don’t know about how things are done in chaplaincy programs there. They also expressed a desire to learn from us, and I am not sure who learned more over the four days.”

The exchange of ideas is key to chaplain program engagement as with other U.S. Africa Command and Air Forces Africa TSC programs, Chaplain Williams said. The programs hinge on a faith-based approach that draws on moral precepts common to all major religions.

The HIV/AIDS program is a good example. It is not specific to or centered on a specific religion.

“The program is tailored to address the chaplain corps in existence on the continent, which are primarily Christian and Muslim. However, we can adapt the program to African traditional religions and other religions as well,” Chaplain Williams said. “It takes into account aspects of moral teaching common to major faiths:  the golden rule, prohibition of adultery and the value of abstinence.”

The chaplain said faith-based programs have slowed the spread of HIV/AIDS when applied on the continent. He also said reaching military members and their families is especially important. 

“Because of various reasons, including their age, income and mobility, Soldiers can help stop the spread of the disease,” the chaplain said. “So we’ve developed a faith-based program for the militaries of Africa.”

In the Namibian capital of Windhoek, areas covered during the event also included suicide prevention, caring for caregivers and the role of the chaplain assistant.
The event was orchestrated by HIV/AIDS prevention program managers from the U.S. Embassy and the Namibian Defense Forces.

“They were excellent hosts,” Chaplain Williams said. He added that he was very interested in the tour of impoverished areas of the city and to see firsthand the impact NGOs were making in the area. Overall, the two trips to Africa left him with a better estimation of the importance of faith to Africans.

“It’s been a real eye-opener for many Americans,” Chaplain Williams said. “During the conference in Botswana, we opened each session with a prayer and actually had a Christian worship chorus one day, and everyone was invited to sing along.
“The point has been made many times and in many ways by students of life on the African continent. Religion is much more central to the lives of people in Africa. It was heartening to see such a display of faith.”

The American chaplains will have the opportunity to continue to learn about faith on the continent as the program continues.

Chaplain Williams said several other chaplain corps in partner nations have expressed interest in similar engagements.