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Facilitating spiritual fitness through diversity and inclusion

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Lt. Col. ) Christine L. Blice-Baum
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Chaplain
On any given Sunday at the Scott Air Force Base chapels, a visitor is greeted and welcomed to Protestant worship services or Catholic Mass. Children are enrolled in religious education. The congregations collect offerings that are used for faith-based programs, fellowship and parish activities. It really looks a lot like any of the churches outside our gates.

But on Sunday afternoon, the focus takes a sharp turn. Why is this? Because the United States Air Force Chaplain Corps mandates that the Air Force Chaplain Corps' primary function is to facilitate the constitutional right of the free exercise of religion --and while that includes providing religious services for the majority-represented faith groups, such as Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians--it also includes providing for the free exercise of religion for smaller, less-represented faith groups and spiritual needs.

Recently Air Force leaders issued a letter to all Airmen entitled, "Air Force Diversity and Inclusion." Our senior leaders recognize that for maximum mission effectiveness we must use our Nation's greatest strength --"its remarkably diverse people." This diversity takes many shapes--to include religious and spiritual diversity.

With Spiritual Fitness being one of the four key domains of Comprehensive Airman Fitness, the chapel serves as not only the Office of Primary Responsibility for all things religious and spiritual, but actually has a legacy of leading the way in advocating for and implementing diversity and inclusion--religious, ethnic and gender diversity.

The Chaplain Corps history

Religious/ethnic diversity and inclusion were already a part of the new Air Force chaplaincy when it began in 1949. African American and Jewish chaplains were among those serving as far back as the Civil War. By the mid-1950s, the Air Force chaplaincy accepted persons certified by those of the Latter-day Saints and Christian Science churches. At that time, approximately 60 percent of the people were members of 254 different religious groups. In 1956, the Air Force chaplaincy represented 50 of these faith groups.

In 1973, the Air Force chaplaincy became gender inclusive with the commissioning of Chaplain Lorraine Potter, the first woman Air Force Chaplain. In 2001, Potter became the first woman Air Force Chief of Chaplains with the rank of Major General. Today, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board under the Office of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness of the Department of Defense represents more than 200 religious organizations.

Scott AFB commitment to diversity, inclusion

Back to what happens at Scott Air Force Base after Sunday morning. How does the base-level chapel support and strengthen this wealth of diversity of faith and spiritual perspectives? How do we as the local chapel remove barriers to religious and spiritual diversity and inclusivity? The first step in providing for the free exercise of religion and spiritual support is assessing needs of our members and their families and then responding to those needs. We have done this is a variety of ways: from written needs assessments, focus groups, visiting units for face-to-face conversations and meeting people where they are.

We have responded to this diversity of religious spiritual needs in our community in innovative ways while at the same time adhering to our faith requirements and tenets. While the chaplains and our priest provide traditional Protestant and Catholic worship, sacraments, rites, religious education and programs on base, we have also established a robust partnership network of faith leaders in local area.

The chapel hosted a faith leader appreciation luncheon and training the past three years which brought more than 150 different local faith and spiritual leaders onto base including Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, LDS, Buddhist and Baha'i. We have identified and recruited qualified individuals to serve as Distinct Faith Group Leaders on base and have provided them with training and support. Currently, the chapel hosts a Buddhist chanting group (from the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist organization) as well as a Wiccan-faith-based group. The chapel also has Baha'i and Orthodox Christian lay leaders. The Orthodox group hosts a quarterly luncheon retreat.

In addition to a diversity of faith groups, Scott AFB has embarked on some innovative initiatives to support the resiliency and spiritual fitness of our members and their families. We have collaborated with our Integrative Delivery System partners to host yoga classes, mindfulness meditation groups, and retreats and domestic violence training. We have collaborated with the Health Promotion Flight, Mental Health and Family Advocacy, Airman and Family Readiness and the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator realizing that the CAF domains often overlap and complement each other.

We have people coming in the doors of the chapel who otherwise would have avoided traditional religion, and because of our deliberate response to diversity and inclusion, they now have a place to strengthen not only their resiliency but also to develop spiritual fitness.

In a time when religion is often used in polarizing and destructive ways, our mission is to help remove barriers to diversity and maximize our strength as a force by facilitating spiritual fitness. It's not only our legacy, but also our challenge!