Rock Island Arsenal, Ill. -Being on a small island in the middle of the Mississippi River has its perks. There’s abundant wildlife, great walking trails, new housing, little traffic, a large gym, a well-stocked commissary, and it’s quiet most of the time (except for the Canada geese when they start chattering). All in all, Rock Island Arsenal is one of the best kept secrets in the Army and a gem tucked away in the Quad Cities area.
The one thing lacking on the island landscape, however, is a chapel.
While RIA doesn’t have a chapel, it does have chaplains. One of them, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Kevin Neihoff, is assigned to U.S. Army Sustainment Command. While Niehoff is Southern Baptist, he is determined to serve the needs of the installation workforce and families of all faiths. He said being a chaplain on a small island, while great in many ways, is also one of his biggest challenges he faces.
“Our biggest challenge is that the population on the island is small,” he said. “Most of the civilian employees and military servicemembers live off post and attend off post services. In the last 12 years, weekly services were attempted and did not last longer than six months. We attempted monthly services last year and, due to the lack of attendance, we haven’t had one since. I have found that one-time events such as Easter Sunrise Service, National Prayer Breakfast and Ash Wednesday seem to be better supported.”
As the installation and Quad Cities communities continue to rebuild in-person worship services following the pandemic, Neihoff is reaching out to his faith-based community partners and establishing avenues of opportunities for sharing and ministering to the Island’s spiritual needs for major religious observances. It’s a mission he takes seriously and is committed to expand and kicked off with an Ash Wednesday service for Roman Catholics.
Neihoff’s strategy to target larger religious observances seems to have started out with success - more than 70 RIA employees and family members attended the Ash Wednesday service, a turnout that he sees as promising for future events.
Neihoff had been approached by several people on the RIA about the potential for having an Ash Wednesday Service and he felt 2023 was a good time to reinvigorate it, post-pandemic.
“Before COVID-19, there was an Ash Wednesday Service but was shut down due to the pandemic,” he said. “I sought out some support from the garrison, who connected me with a local parish priest from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bettendorf, Iowa, and they were happy to come out and we were grateful for their support.”
The priest assigned to conduct the service, Father Ben Snyder, is a little new to the Quad Cities, and very new to working with the military, outside of the military families who attend Lourdes for services. He admits he was a little intimidated by the request, but once he spoke with the chaplain and his assistant, the shared goal of serving the spiritual community of the people put him at ease.
“My initial reaction was a little intimidated, which is a usual reaction for me with something new and, especially, considering it is the military base,” he said. “It would be my first time to the base, and I didn't know what to expect, as the military is a different ‘culture’, so to speak. But I have gotten to know several military families in the parish who are connected to the Arsenal, so there was also the feeling of ‘These are my people too.’”
Snyder also learned that, like the Catholic church, the military has rules and regulations that remain in place, regardless of where servicemembers move. He says that consistency is something he sees as stabilizing for military families of his faith, and one reason he hopes to continue to partner with installation chaplains and support the community of Catholics on the Arsenal.
“I think it is very important to help support the families on the Arsenal for future holy days,” he said. “One of the beautiful things about the Catholic faith and our rites is that they are the same no matter where you are and, in the military where change of location is common, that consistency of the faith is something stable to ground us.”
Lt. Col. John Fernas, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, was pleased when he saw the Ash Wednesday service information shared on the Arsenal. For him, it meant the opportunity to participate in an important religious event he would not have been able to otherwise.
“Providing services on base during lunch time affords me the opportunity to attend Mass during the busy work day when it would otherwise not be possible,” he said. “Having services on the post also allows us opportunities to connect with our community through faith and fellowship.”
Elizabeth Urbaniak, public affairs specialist for Army Contracting Command-Rock Island Arsenal, agreed.
“Our services are either in the morning or in the evening, when I am rushing to get off of work,” she said. So, this (on-post service during lunch) is a perfect time.”
Col. Todd Burnley, chief of staff for Joint Munitions Command, shared the same sentiments as Fernas and Urbaniak as far as accessibility for services. He also addressed the importance of spiritual fitness in the lives of service members and civilians.
“Work-life balance is extremely important, and spiritual well-being plays a large role in my happiness,” he said. “I would love to see these services expanded to other denominations and faiths so our inclusive and diverse workforce could share the same benefits of on-island spiritual fitness opportunities.”
“Religious services are important for people on multiple levels,” he said. “First, it is very much a part of who people are and how they identify themselves. Religion is a very personal thing. Second, it is a way to develop community. Most people who are active in religion develop a bond with that group and it fosters a sense of belonging for individuals and families. Third, it is also a protective factor for other serious issues. While it does not eliminate issues such as alcoholism, suicide, abuse such as verbal, emotional, and physical, some studies have shown that it does reduce the incidence of these things through the support it can bring.”
Burnley also sees this as a positive way to strengthen the already well-established community partnerships RIA shares with many Quad Cities organizations.
“Community partnerships not only provide an opportunity for Rock Island Soldiers and Civilians to attend services, but also allows the greater Quad Cities community to gain a better understanding of the diverse support Rock Island units provide to the Department of Defense,” he said “Events like this allow us to continue to build strong bonds between Rock Island Arsenal organizations and the surrounding Quad Cities communities, where most of our RIA employees live.”
At the end of the day, Neihoff said establishing these faith-based partnerships with local church and spiritual leaders is about meeting the needs of the RIA community, and his future plans are being modeled after the success of the Ash Wednesday Service.
“I believe by the response we met a need, he said. “Many of the civilians and military dependents living on the island could attend a service over lunch and not have to drive off post before or after work. I talked with a gentleman who is here on temporary duty for a week and he was glad we had the service, because otherwise he would have to find a parish off post, in an area he was not familiar with. The turnout was more than I expected. I am pleased that we were able to meet a need for our RIA community.”
As the first off-island religious leader since the pandemic to be a part of this burgeoning community faith partnership initiative, Snyder wholeheartedly agreed.
“I think it is important for the Arsenal to build relationships with local faith leaders because faith is not something we are supposed to put in its own separate box,” he said. “Someone can't split themselves completely from their role in the workplace from being a mother or father. The same is with our faith. Our faith builds us and forms us, both in how we live personally and how we interact with others. When families move a lot with the military, knowing where you can land with your faith needs is just as important as finding a house. Churches and religious institutions help form that support and community that we all need.”
For more information or to speak with Neihoff about establishing a faith-based community partnership, please call (309) 782-0923.