FORT POLK, La. — The need to connect with each other has been studied extensively by scientists, sociologists, psychiatrists and more. Their conclusions state the importance of that connection in relation to everything from boosting your mood and lowering anxiety to improving the immune system and more.
Making that kind of connection and feeling like they have a place they belong can sometimes be a challenge for Soldiers and Families due to a military culture based on permanent changes of station, deployments and training, making it difficult to identify and bridge a communication, culture and spiritual gap with others.
Which is why the Fort Polk Religious Support Services Office is offering the Fort Polk community a new ministry — “The Community: An Experience For All,” led by Chap. (Maj.) Wade “UBG” (Ugly Bald Guy) Shepard, senior pastor.
Shepard said the Army Chaplain Corps focus is on investing in people first by connecting them in spirit and cultivating community — this ministry does that in a unique way.
Shepard said there are two rapidly growing majorities:
• One group has the faith identity they grew up with — Christian, Catholic, Buddhist — but don’t consider themselves practitioners. They don’t go to a church, temple or mosque, but still have similar beliefs.
• The other quickly growing group is filled with those who have no religious affiliation — they are spiritual but not religious.
To deal with this shift, Shepard said for the first time chaplains are seeing a shift in regulation to include the mention of the nonreligious that still have spirituality.
“If we all believe spirituality is important to cultivate a connection with people, then what we are doing with “The Community” is to focus on those two demographics and tell them we have something for you to help build connections, discuss deep level topics that focus on purpose in life, values, ethics, morals. It’s a place you can be who you are regardless of your gender identity, sexual orientation, preference identity, faith, belief — religious or nonreligious. You can be included in this group. You have worth and value just by being a human being. We are going to grow and love life and have a lot of fun doing it together within the bounds of this ministry,” he said.
When you look at the model of holistic health and fitness, Shepard said in his mind that means the triad of sleep, nutrition, physical activity mixed with the spiritual, mental social and family aspects of the individual, which leads to spiritual readiness.
“The Community will help facilitate this by having conversations from a wide variety of sources and topics,” he said. They will include everything from sacred texts for different religions, humanists and nontheistic documents to different forms of philosophy, the arts and activities such as boating and more. We want to give our members a voice.”
In addition to the ever changing topics “The Community” will focus on, Shepard said their is also an element of spontaneity built in to where the ministry will gather.
“Meeting locations could include breakfast at someone’s house one week. The next week, we could meet at someone else’s house, at the brew club in Alexandria or the Anvil Bar on the installation,” he said.
Chap. (Capt.) John S. Smith, associate minister, said mission members have a say in where they will meet.
“We have to be sensitive to everyone’s needs,” he said.
Shepard said the chaplains will come with a plan via social media, but there is a collaborative process involved.
“We decide together where a gathering takes place,” he said.
Shepard said many of the people they are trying to reach may have had bad experiences in the past and are wounded. They may not be quick to trust what their ministry is about.
“I believe that the best way to counteract cynicism is by action and word of mouth. It needs to be a grass-roots movement. I can talk to people all day and say we are going to include you, but that’s not going to change anyone’s mind until they hear it from their peers that this is the real deal and everyone is included,” he said. “It’s putting into practice the things that we believe on a consistent basis that helps people understand that they are welcome and they don’t have to be afraid.”
Smith said The Community is an innovative strategy to work outside the box of traditional services.
“It’s an inclusive environment with no set institutional structure where you can be yourself,” he said. “Those that take part will feel the energy we generate. Whatever they are looking for or seeking will be about them. It’s an open table. They can bring their question, emotional baggage, anger and frustration. They can bring it all and we will get through it together,” he said.
Shepard said they are used to working with people who have been hurt and are frustrated and upset.
“We often work with folks on the fringes and are prepared for their anger,” he said.
Smith said he tries to practice Jesus’s model.
“All of those that he ministered to were outcasts that lived on the margins. They had baggage, difficulties and hardships. He made them feel included. I know what it is to be a minority as part of the LBGTQ community. I bring that first-hand knowledge, empathy and relatability is important,” he said.
Shepard said people can use a ministry like this in their lives.
“This is a home for folks to feel whatever it is they are feeling. A safe place that allows them to heal whatever trauma they are dealing with and help facilitate their meaning and purpose in life,” he said.
Smith said it’s a place where Soldiers and Family members can be transparent and feel a sense of belonging.
“It’s a place that they can be authentic. The real focus of the ministry is them,” he said.”That’s how we are going to build a welcoming culture and community.”
Shepard said because of the fluidity of their gathering times and locations, communication is essential.
For more information about The Community: An Experience For All, scan the QR code found on page 7 or call Shepard at (903) 539-1279 or 1st Lt. Justin Barnett at (228) 731-7860.