JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas --
Religious freedom is an entitlement for service members guaranteed in Title 10 of the U.S. Code and the chaplains at Joint Base San Antonio are doing their best to ensure all service members, retirees, Department of Defense civilian employees, and their family members have options for practicing their faith during COVID-19.
“Due to COVID-19, we had to suspend in-person services at JBSA and go to an online format,” said Army Chaplain (Maj.) Demetrius Walton, 502nd Forces Support Group operations and plans chaplain at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.
“Upon the closure of JBSA chapels due to COVID, our team brainstormed and came up with the idea of live-streaming services through Facebook Live,” said Tech. Sgt. Arnold Perez, non-commissioned officer in charge of chapel operations at the Freedom Chapel at JBSA-Lackland. “This allows us to continue to reach our parishioners and JBSA personnel to ensure their ability to continue to practice their First Amendment rights.”
Online services are currently being provided by live-stream for Buddhist, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox, and Protestant traditional, gospel, liturgical, and contemporary communities.
“All services are posted on the page after the live stream so anyone can view them at any time, and they are clearly marked with the denomination in the title,” Perez said.
As JBSA health protection conditions continue to change, so will the availability of services. Recently, several services opened to in-person attendance with safety protocols, but live-streamed services will continue as well.
“When JBSA went to HPCON BRAVO for several services, we were able to let people attend in-person at 50 percent capacity,” Walton said. “But currently, we are at 25 percent capacity because JBSA is back at HPCON CHARLIE. We are utilizing face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning between services, and ensuring everything is within the standards of protection.”
In-person services are currently open only to active duty service members and their families.
“We encourage all others to utilize the online format to help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Walton said. “We are making sure we have all the major faith groups represented, so no one is discriminated against.
Providing services virtually has been a creative and innovative process.
“There is a lot behind the scenes that goes into preparing for a service, from lights to sound and setup of worship items and materials,” said Perez, who does a great deal of the preparations for live streaming at the Lackland chapel by himself. “Typically, our parishioners are an extremely vital part in supporting our services, as I am the only enlisted support in our chapel. Due to the restrictions and not being able to have those volunteers, the service chaplains and myself provide a majority of the prep support ourselves.”
Walton said the time and effort to provide the community with continued support is important to all chapel staff members.
“We want to ensure COVID does not hinder service members Title 10 support, and that they know we care,” he said. “You matter, and especially in times like this, it is important that you have the resiliency to persevere if you are impacted by COVID-19.”
“Virtual chapel services can be a literal lifeline for the majority of our people,” said Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Deborah Hughley, branch chief, Installation Ministries, at the JBSA-Lackland Chapel, adding that there are several advantages to having virtual services, including reaching people who may have never come to one of the JBSA Chapels.
“Our ministry is now global, and people can watch at their own convenience, from anywhere,” she said, adding there is a downside. “Virtual services keep people connected, but they do not build community. The way forward is to eventually find a blended approach, giving everyone the opportunity to choose between live services and live stream services.”
In the meantime, community members can find other ways to interact with their neighbors and friends.
“Doing good for neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, and even enemies - saying kind words, sending a postcard, paying for someone’s lunch behind you in the drive-through that you don’t know, or making someone laugh are all good ways to show compassion and build your faith,” Hughley said, recalling the Golden Rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Damon Boucher, who is stationed at JBSA-Randolph, feels the same way.
“In order to maintain our spiritual resilience, it is important to seek out a purpose and look for opportunities to serve others,” he said. “This may involve starting a virtual support group or an online religious study. Others may find purpose in picking up trash in their neighborhood or mowing their neighbor’s lawn. Regardless of an individual’s religious and/or spiritual preference, we can all gain satisfaction and purpose by serving others.
Boucher also feels the pandemic is an opportunity to lean into faith as a way to increase resilience during difficult times.
“I’ve found that the best way to maintain my faith is to help others maintain theirs,” he said. “When you see someone struggling, give them a little encouragement – a word of hope, a lifeline of affirmation, or maybe just a helping hand. You’ll rejuvenate your own faith in the process.”
All available JBSA chapel services may be found on the JBSA chapel Facebook pages. Each location has its own page, which may be found at https://www.jbsa.mil/Resources/Chaplain-Services/.
In addition to religious services, there are several other virtual opportunities for growth and religious fulfillment, such as religious education opportunities like Bible studies and workshops, which may also be found on the JBSA chapel Facebook pages, Walton said.
“We offer online devotionals, videos, and links to information and other resources,” he said. “As chaplains, we love the community here, and we will continue to adapt and overcome.”
For more information or to speak to a chaplain, call 210-221-5004 for the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Chapel; 210-671-2913 for JBSA-Lackland; and 210-652-6121 for JBSA-Randolph. For emergency counseling or after-hours chaplain support, call the command post at 210-221-9363.