Patriots interfaith prayer breakfast promotes resilience, understanding
December 20, 2012
Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, N.J. -- As he had many times before, the brigade chaplain, Army Capt. Glenvil Gregory, opened with a short Christian prayer, blessing the food. Soldiers then filed through the breakfast buffet line, chatting, laughing and catching up with one another, grabbing a breakfast burrito and pouring coffee and juice.
The 174th Infantry Brigade's monthly prayer breakfast may have started out like many others, but not everyone expected what was to come.
After everyone had a chance to eat and get settled in, the Chaplain called two Soldiers to the front of the room and asked everyone to stand for the program's opening prayer. Everyone stood and bowed their heads.
Muhammad, an Army staff sergeant and linguist, lifted his hands and began praying -- in Arabic. He offered a Muslim prayer of blessing for everyone in the room, the food, the leaders appointed over him, and the organization.
When he finished, Sami, also a linguist and Army staff sergeant, came forward wearing his yarmulke and offered a traditional Jewish prayer of "Grace After Meals" -- in Hebrew.
"This was the first time I've seen such an event include more than a Christian invocation in the official program," said Sgt. 1st Class Debra Owens, 174th Infantry Brigade operations section sergeant.
Even Muhammad was surprised when the Chaplain approached him to take part in the event.
"I thought it was only for Christians," Muhammad said, "especially being around Christmas; but it's great to invite people of other faiths. It lets them know who you are."
While this interfaith prayer breakfast experience was new for Muhammad, he's no stranger to leading religious services. During a recent deployment to Iraq, he led services almost every Friday in the absence of a Muslim chaplain. He's also been very involved in speaking at civilian mosques. Originally from Gambia, in West Africa, Muhammad completed Islamic seminary studies in Sierra Leone and Lebanon before moving to Malaysia to study political science. He then moved to the United States and earned a graduate degree from Oklahoma City University. He currently serves as a cultural awareness instructor and linguist trainer/mentor with 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment, 174th Infantry Brigade at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.
Sami, however, is much less experienced in religious leadership, and for good reason. Born to a Jewish family in Baghdad, Sami was forced to hide his faith for most of his life.
"Being Jewish was a secret ever since I was born," he said. "We used to hide our faith in Iraq. We would go to church to prove we were Christian when we were not; because if they found out, they would kill us. But since we came here, we can practice freely."
Sami left Baghdad and moved to the United States when he was 36. He joined the U.S. Army Reserve a few years later. He now serves as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the 174th trainer/mentor linguist team.
Muhammad and Sami are examples of how Soldiers from different religious and cultural backgrounds serve side-by-side every day. Army chaplains must meet the spiritual needs of all Soldiers in his or her organization, Gregory explained.
"As I got to know the brigade," Gregory said, "I realized there were more faiths represented [other than the Christian faith]."
Coming from the Moravian Church, Gregory is used to an ecumenical approach to ministry -- that is, one that promotes unity and working relationships between different churches or faith groups. He attended seminary alongside people from many different Christian denominations. Gregory said his experience in Clinical Pastoral Education, along with his Army training, helped prepare him for interfaith ministry. As a student, he studied alongside Jewish and Muslim chaplain candidates at the Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C. During his time on staff at the same school, he served alongside both a Muslim Imam and a Jewish Rabbi.
Not all Soldiers have the same spiritual needs, and there may not be an opportunity for a Soldier to meet with a chaplain from his or her same faith background. Gregory strives to take care of his Soldiers, regardless of their religious background.
"Whenever I see you, I see a person first and foremost, not your beliefs," explained Gregory. This spiritual care extends to the non-religious as well.
"[I've had] atheist Soldiers come, not wanting to talk about religion but about issues of life … to get a different perspective from a religious person," he said.
As one of the five dimensions of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, spiritual health is paramount to readiness. Gregory, Muhammad, and Sami all agree -- interfaith events like the 174th Infantry Brigade's December prayer breakfast are a good thing.
"Interfaith dialogue is something I like," said Muhammad. "We're all human; it's just the way we look at one coin differently. If you don't mingle with other people, you can't blame them for a lack of knowledge about who you are."