Adventist Chaplains

In a rare moment of personal time, Jay Coon, Auburn Adventist Academy associate pastor, purposefully pushes a shopping cart toward the supermarket produce section. With a full basket, he's nearly done with his grocery list when the pager buzzes. The police station needs him ... and needs him now.

This is familiar territory for Jay. The men and women there have become colleagues and close friends. Jay has served as an Adventist pastor in Auburn, Washington, since 2001, but he's also been a volunteer chaplain for the local police and fire departments since 2003. Shortly after he and his family arrived in Auburn, he began to sense an increased longing to connect with his community in some tangible way. He attended a meeting during which the mayor, along with the police and fire chiefs, invited pastors to become chaplains for community agencies. Of the nearly 30 pastors there, Jay, representing the Adventist Church, was the only one to respond positively to the invitation.

In a sense, this volunteer role has become part of Jay's pastoral job description, made possible by the team at the Auburn Adventist Academy Church. Bill Roberts, senior pastor, and Wilma Bing, associate pastor, may wryly wish at times for a flak jacket, but Jay is the only one who treats a bullet-proof vest as standard equipment — at least when he's on call. Although he doesn't personally carry a weapon, he's logged more than 2,000 hours in a police car. Critical moments of pain and loss happen at all times, day or night. And those times, with raw emotions and tempers on edge, are when the chaplain is called into action.

"Going into the homes of people who have experienced trauma, being the hands and heart of Jesus in loving them in the middle of that experience, has touched my heart and changed me in many ways," says Jay. In fact, fire department personnel, usually the first to respond in a time of family loss, are also often the first to call in a chaplain. And, they won't leave the scene of tragedy until the chaplain has arrived.

A Trusted Community Friend

Early in his chaplaincy, Jay noticed that while fire crews often worked together for collegiality and moral support, police officers often patrolled alone. So, down at the Auburn police headquarters, he set up a small room where he could visit with officers about the situations they face. It's a place to have prayer or lend out a resource book. Sometimes Jay is the only person they know with whom they can have a confidential and deep connection. "I've had some serious conversations in here," he says, "but they've always ended in restored understanding. It's a blessing to work with these dedicated men and women." Because of the confidence he has earned, Jay has been privileged to preside over three funerals and five weddings for police officers.

As lead community chaplain, Jay is responsible for creating a schedule for the other chaplains. Each gets an average of one week of on-call time each month. Since Jay usually works the schedule out so the other chaplains cover Sabbath, while he takes Sunday, he has never been paged while preaching. One Sabbath, however, he was walking home from church when he got called to address an issue at the local Muckleshoot Casino. "How many pastors," smiles Jay, "have literally gone right from the church pulpit into a casino to minister?"

Beyond his full-time responsibility to more than 350 regularly attending members and 250 students at the Auburn Adventist Academy Church, Jay serves as a bridge between the Adventist mission and his local community. When the fire department lost a fireman in an accident on Mount Rainier, Jay worked with the academy administration to open the gymnasium for a community memorial service that accommodated nearly 2,000 people.

A Specialized Niche

Adventist chaplains throughout the Northwest, both paid and volunteer, fill a specialized niche. They minister to congregations far beyond the four walls of church. Larry Roth, North American Division assistant director of chaplaincy ministries, says more than 450 Adventist chaplains are currently endorsed throughout the continent. They serve in the military, within hospital systems, on college campuses, and in state, federal or local correctional institutions. Volunteers like Jay Coon, give invaluable support to local community police and fire departments.

Roth, who is based in Seattle, Washington, guides the endorsement process for candidates throughout the North Pacific Union and Mid-America Union conferences and western Canada. "Chaplains have a unique opportunity," he says. "An Adventist chaplain is ministering in a mostly non-Adventist environment — beyond the comfort and safety of church walls. But as you minister to men, women and, at times, whole families, you realize you are reaching them often at the time of their greatest need." Nowhere is that more apparent than in a military setting.

Great Controversy in Action

"You live the Great Controversy every day," says James Hall, United States Army chaplain major who is currently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington. "I see both God and the devil at work, and I rejoice when I see the spiritual victories." James initially came into the Adventist Church through a Revelation seminar near where he was stationed with the military. After his discharge, he eventually became an Adventist pastor. But he found himself called back into the armed services — this time as a chaplain.

"There are a lot of myths about chaplaincy," he says. "Some people think we have to put Adventist beliefs aside. But that's simply not true. I have had the opportunity to share our unique doctrines with a wide range of believers, including Buddhists and Muslims." But being Christ's representative to soldiers means much more than sharing doctrine. "To be relevant to the soldier," James says, "they have to realize you really care about them. There is complete confidentiality between them and a chaplain. A soldier can be completely honest with me without jeopardizing his or her job."

A total of five Adventist chaplains serve in the base's Army units, with an additional chaplain assigned to the Air Force. They include Raoul Maria, with the 338th Cavalry Squadron. A native of the Dominican Republic, he helped as a Red Cross chaplain in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy in New York City. "I want my children to grow up in a safe place," he says. "That's why I joined the Army — to give back to a country that has given me so much. I work to help soldiers become better men and women, to be better parents when they return from their term of service."

A True Missionary Spirit

What about a military chaplain's own family? The Hall family is active in their local Winlock (Washington) Church, where James is an elder and his wife serves as a deaconess. "I explained to my children that we are a 'missionary' family. We've been around the world with different assignments, and they get to see how Adventists live and minister in different cultures. Now two out of our three children want to be missionaries too."

Other military chaplains are also active in local churches. Mike Hakanson, a top-ranking Adventist naval chaplain, is also currently serving as a lay pastor for Anacortes (Washington) Adventist Fellowship Group. Mike has authored an authoritative book on post-traumatic stress disorder used by the military.

Scott Tyman lives in both civilian and military worlds. As a chaplain in the military reserve, he is the Tacoma Central Church senior pastor. He offers prophecy classes, plans outreach ministries and participates in activities that involve military families. He frequently interacts with individuals considering the military to help them develop a personal strategy on how to combine their beliefs with that decision.

Ryan Wilson, Winlock Church pastor and Chehalis (Washington) Church associate pastor, has also recently become involved with community chaplaincy work with local fire and police departments. Like Jay Coon, he will rapidly build his own list of firsthand stories of lives challenged and changed by close contact with the gospel.

Although the scope of this article does not focus on hospital chaplains, the struggle of life and death, with critical questions and thoughtful answers, is nowhere more essential. Every Adventist chaplain, wherever they may be, is fulfilling a distinct role in the Gospel Commission. Whether in a police cruiser, a trench, or in triage, these men and women are truly Adventist ministers — part of God's salt in our Northwest communities.

June 01, 2012 / Feature