A regular part of a chaplain’s job is serving in the midst of chaos. Every day they interact with individuals and families in crisis, listening to their stories, grieving their losses, and helping them to heal. Beyond individual emergencies, chaplains are especially needed when communities are in crisis. When disasters occur that affect large groups, from hurricanes to mass shootings to medical epidemics, chaplains are often nearby, ready to assist in the spiritual healing of those involved.
Last December, CAPT Thomas Walcott, Chaplain of the Coast Guard, witnessed a community in crisis as a result of the partial government shutdown. While other military branches were unaffected, the Department of Homeland Security, which included the U.S. Coast Guard, was one of the government agencies that ceased regular operations. Most of their 10,000 civilian employees were sent home, and over 40,000 people in uniform were required to continue to work without pay. For Walcott and the 43 other chaplains he oversees, this began a busy five weeks of support, advocacy, and counseling.
One of Walcott’s main duties during this time was to support coastguardsmen and their families through their financial struggles. Many families were young, with small children and little savings. Walcott helped communities to mobilize around these people.
“It was one of the bright spots during this time,” says Walcott. “There were food banks in churches. Restaurants gave free meals to families. Communities across the country stepped up and showed their support. While that didn’t make up for missed paychecks, it did boost morale and showed that people cared.”
Another of Walcott’s duties during this time was to advise leadership. These people had to balance continuing to do all the missions required of the Coast Guard, while at the same time understanding that service members and their families were going through a time of crisis.
“I spent a lot of time with them, praying for them and listening to their concerns,” says Walcott. “They had the difficult task of knowing where to set boundaries and balance the safety of people with job duties.”
In addition to this work, counseling sessions doubled in number. Chaplain Walcott and the other Coast Guard chaplains listened to spouses vent about their worries and fears and prayed with coastguardsmen who were overseas and could not be with their families. For many that Walcott met with, the feelings of fear, worry, and frustration stemmed from a feeling of betrayal. Regardless of their political affiliation, people felt that their government, which they served and trusted to support them, let them down.
“People were disappointed and hurt.” says Walcott, “They were directly affected by a budget impasse that had nothing to do with the Coast Guard. That lack of trust could last a long time.”
Today, the government shutdown is over, but it will take time for those in the Coast Guard to heal. Despite being paid, many now operate with greater worry for the future.
“One of my takeaways is the reminder that something that affects some of us affects all of us,” says Walcott. “As individuals and as a church body, we expect that people will be treated fairly. When this doesn’t happen, I think we all have a responsibility to speak up.”
In times of crisis, people need chaplains, and the church, more than ever.