SOUTHBRIDGE, Mass. – More than 170 chaplains, religious affairs specialists, directors of religious education, and others from across the Total Army gathered for the Army Chaplain Corps’ Religious Leader Symposium 9 in Southbridge, Mass., Oct. 24-27.
“The purpose of this training event is to equip attendees as organizational leaders with the knowledge and perspective necessary to lead change that enhances community connections,” said Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Thomas Solhjem, the Army chief of chaplains. “In ‘Caring for the Soul of the Army,’ we must lead the effort to build community while understanding ever-changing culture.”
Traditionally, RLS training has been for senior Chaplain Corps members, but this year more junior representatives were invited. “We need your ideas and your voice,” said Solhjem who recognized the youngest attendee, 20-year-old Specialist Purdue, a religious affairs specialist from Fort Sill, Okla. “We Religious Affairs Specialists have the best job in the Army,” Purdue responded.
The RLS 9 agenda included presentations, discussion groups, and networking opportunities.
Chaplain Corps Campaign Plan
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Willie Mashack provided an overview of the Chaplain Corps Campaign Plan for fiscal year 2023 to fiscal year 2030, a plan which provides a strategic roadmap of how the Army Chaplain Corps will develop its leaders to care for the Army’s number one priority, its People.
The Chaplain Corps Campaign Plan is informed by the Army Campaign Plan, the Army People Strategy, the Army Strategy, and the Secretary of the Army’s objectives. It focuses on four lines of effort: recruit, lead, align, and revitalize.
Chaplain Mashack stressed the importance of gaining stakeholder support for the campaign plan. “If you do not press this down to the tactical lower level, it will not get accomplished,” he said. “This will only be as successful as much as you engage it.”
A healthy community
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Eric Leetch, the director of the Community Readiness Division, formerly known as the “Community Revitalization Division,” spoke about the importance of healthy communities. “The CRD exists to help the Army counter social isolation in order to reduce its negative effects on Soldiers and Families,” Leetch said. “Community is to the group what spiritual readiness is to the individual – a critical yet often overlooked component in preparing the Army’s people for the adversity of combat and the challenges of everyday life.”
“It all started with a tweet,” said Ryan P. Burge, an assistant professor and a pastor, describing what led him to write his book, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.”
When the General Social Survey, the longest running survey in social science since 1972, was released in 2018, Burge saw that the number of Americans claiming “no religion” was now statistically the same as the number of those claiming to be evangelicals. He quickly put together a chart and tweeted it to his small group of Twitter followers. When he checked his phone later that day, he found his message had been retweeted 30 times, then 100s of times over the next few days. “I went from a guy that no one knew anything about, to everybody wanting to talk to me about religion,” Burge said. “The next couple of days were a whirlwind: I was on the front page of CNN, The New York Post, The Washington Post, and the New York Times.”
iGen and a new community
Dr. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of “iGen,” explained the pros, cons, and consequences of technology in the lives of GenZ. Her presentation explored generational differences and challenged Chaplain Corps leaders to explore new ways of thinking about and ministering to today’s youngest soldiers and family members.
Mutli-Faith Neighbors Network
Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. and Imam Mohamed Magid, co-founders of Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, discussed how a multi-faith approach is changing our communities:
"We use the term multi-faith, instead of inter-faith, to say we acknowledge that we have profound confessional and theological differences, some of which are irreconcilable,” Roberts said. “Even so, we can still build authentic relationships.”
Both men acknowledged the depth and richness of their friendship, despite their differences.
Tony Buettner currently serves as the national spokesperson for Blue Zones, an organization dedicated to creating healthy communities across the United States. He provided an overview of research findings chronicled in the book, “The Blue Zones,” written by his brother Dan, who was studying areas of the world in which people live exceptionally long lives.
There are five such places in the world, referred to as “Blue Zones,” where people live the longest, consistently reaching 100 years old: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, Calif. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 77 years.
The Blue Zones team of demographers and researchers found that the Blue Zone areas share nine lifestyle habits that they call the Power 9. Among these habits is the fact that Blue Zone diet appears to be 95% plant-based, consisting of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, with very little meat or sugary foods.
Bridging the great divide – community conversations
The RLS 9 prayer breakfast featured Daryl Davis, an awarding-winning musician and race relations expert, who performed music and served as the keynote speaker. Davis is committed to helping people ignite positive change, using conversation and music to build bridges. Over several decades, he’s engaged leaders of the KKK and other White supremacist groups to find the answer to the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”