CAMP ZAMA, Japan (April 7, 2020) – When chaplains at Camp Zama learned they would have to cancel in-person worship services last month due to the COVID-19 virus, they immediately focused on providing alternatives.
Not only did they announce livestreamed online services right away, a week later they announced how Protestants and Catholics could receive communion: A chaplain would provide communion for an hour each Thursday for Protestants at the Camp Zama Chapel, and Catholics could drive up to the chapel immediately after the livestreamed Mass each Sunday.
For Easter, the Zama Summit Chapel, Gospel Service and Traditional Service will have a drive-in Easter celebration where attendees will park at the Camp Zama Community Club, tune their radios into FM 88.9 to hear the service, and receive an Easter gift bag.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Donald Ehrke, chaplain for U.S. Army Garrison Japan, said that in light of COVID-19 restrictions, installation chaplains have allowed themselves to think more freely and creatively about possibilities that would help them serve the community.
“If we need to do that in a way that is unique or untried, we’re willing to make a mistake and correct if we need to, but so far the community has really responded well and they’ve been grateful for what we’ve been able to offer,” Ehrke said.
Sgt. 1st Class Cruzy Cruz, operations noncommissioned officer in charge, U.S. Army Medical Department Activity – Japan, is one of those grateful members of the community.
Cruz was among many members of the installation’s Holy Family Catholic Community who watched online as Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Alan Irizarry, operations chaplain for U.S. Army Japan and the community's priest, celebrated Palm Sunday Mass inside the chapel April 5 and then drove to the front of the chapel for communion.
Cruz said he really appreciates the efforts of Irizarry and the religious community at Camp Zama.
“It is most important during these times of hardship and uncertainty because it is now more than ever that we need to keep our faith and still keep our religious routine,” Cruz said. “Receiving communion reminds us in this time of suffering by many that Jesus also suffered for us, and that by Jesus’s love, this all will pass.”
Likewise, Chaplain (Capt.) Danny Black, chaplain for the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion, who received communion with his family during the Protestant time for communion April 2, said he was thankful for the opportunity.
As a chaplain, he often hosts communion, but doesn’t get a chance to come to church just for the purpose of taking communion, Black said, so when the opportunity arose, he wanted to be sure to take advantage of it.
Col. Tony Petros, USARJ command chaplain, said that while the Army chapel program has been slowly expanding its social media connection with the community, the onset of the virus spurred chaplains to increase that connection quickly.
“With the COVID-19 safety measures, streaming the chapel program is the only option available to minister to the community,” Petros said. “Each week the online product is improving and the numbers of individuals continues to grow.”
Ehrke said having services online can sometimes increase the number of people chaplains are able to reach.
For instance, more than 1,600 people recently watched Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Johnston, chaplain for the 38th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, preach online, while normally about 500 people would attend in person on any given Sunday, Ehrke said.
“So we’re thinking, ‘What a diminished way to do ministry,’ and yet, we see that we’re able to actually reach more people through these alternative means than we ever thought we would,” Ehrke said. “So God is at work in this and in ways that we could not have predicted.”
There are some aspects of religious services the internet cannot provide, however, and Petros said that is why chaplains decided it was possible to make communion available to individuals and families one at a time.
“This has worked out well for the Protestant congregation and for the Catholic community,” Petros said.
Irizarry said the initiative to provide communion after the livestreamed Mass sprang from general guidance chaplains have received from the Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Army office to reach out to people through social media outlets such as Facebook and YouTube.
“One of our core competencies is to provide and perform, and so that’s what we’re doing—providing and performing to our people,” Irizarry said. “[Our parishioners] really have a Christian heart, and they really long to receive the sacraments; that is their spiritual nourishment.”
Irizarry noted that for Catholics, receiving communion is a necessary part of celebrating Mass.
“[It’s] essential for us Catholics,” Irizarry said. “We are mandated—in a certain way it’s a divine mandate—to receive Jesus every week, every Sunday.”
Communion is also important for Protestants, and Chaplain (Capt.) Malcolm Rios, chaplain for the 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, said that for some, it is a big part of their faith.
“They really know that as part of their faith routine, and so to not have that available, I think that detracts from their spiritual journey,” Rios said, “so having it here [at the chapel on Thursdays] is good.”
The COVID-19 situation has made everyone flex in a way they’ve never had to before, Rios said.
“There are people who have been in situations and maybe have years of experience, but nobody in this generation has been in this type of situation, the COVID pandemic,” Rios said. “All of it is brand new and we’re all just writing the playbook as we’re going along.”
However, Master Sgt. Edrena Roberts, USARJ command chaplain sergeant major, said the Army’s religious personnel are trained to be flexible for challenges such as COVID-19.
“As religious affairs specialists, we’re taught that you can have a chaplain service on a Humvee hood or on a stump or on a box of MREs,” Roberts said, “and with COVID, we’re showing again that we can have services anywhere.”
The online services and innovations with communion are a testament to the adaptability of Camp Zama religious support personnel, Roberts said.
“To me, I think it’s awesome that even through all the chaos we can still provide the religious support—the basic needs of the religious community—and the opportunities are still here, and we’re taking full advantage of them any way we can,” Roberts said.
Camp Zama’s livestreaming worship services are all at 9 a.m. Sundays on Facebook, and people can find the Gospel Service at “SHA Gospel;” the Summit Service (contemporary Protestant) at “Zama Summit Chapel;” and the Roman Catholic Mass at “Holy Family Zama.” Irizarry also provides daily livestreamed Masses at noon, including Saturdays. Information about Holy Week services is available on the pages as well.
In addition, Camp Zama chaplains have made multiple other options available to the community, Petros said.
For example, the U.S. Army Japan Chapel Services YouTube channel has daily devotionals provided by chaplains; there is a Financial Peace University class individuals can enroll in for free; and chaplains will make the Right Now Media (an online resource library) available for Soldiers and families this week, Petros said.
Communion for Protestants, meanwhile, is between 4 and 5 p.m. Thursdays at the Camp Zama Chapel, and communion for Roman Catholics is from 9:45 to 10:30 a.m. after Mass in front of the Camp Zama Chapel.
Irizarry said that throughout the COVID-19 crisis, he encourages people to listen to the information the command releases and trust their guidance.
In addition, Ehrke said Camp Zama always has an on-call chaplain who can be reached through DSN 315-263-3123 or COMM 046-407-3123.