Usually the guests I interview on my blog are authors—and today’s guest is, in fact, an author. However, Ben Ferguson is doing something he considers much more important than writing at the moment, and that something is what we’re going to talk about today.
I first met Ben virtually through my friend and former pastor, Father Jerry Sherbourne. Father Jerry left parish ministry to serve in the Army as a chaplain. During his deployment to Iraq, he was adopted by Adopt-a-Chaplain, and he raved about how much the organization helped him and other chaplains.
Father Jerry introduced me to Ben, who has had two books published. Ben was working on a book about using Biblical principles to handle everyday problems, and Father Jerry recommended me as an editor. Ben almost finished the book, but once he got involved in Adopt-a-Chaplain, he put the book aside and took on a new ministry. We have stayed in touch, and I had the wonderful experience of meeting Ben in person recently when the proud grandpa came to San Antonio for his grandson’s graduation from basic training.
Lillie: Welcome to A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye, Ben. Meeting you in person was such a blessing. I loved hearing about AAC, and it’s a real treat to introduce you and Adopt-a-Chaplain (AAC) to my readers. Actually, regular readers have heard about AAC. In addition to a number of posts in which I’ve included Adopt-a-Chaplain along with other troop support organizations, I’ve written the following articles about AAC:
- Another Great Organization for the Troops
- Adopt-a-Chaplain News
- What’s Adopt-a-Chaplain All About?
- Supporting Our Chaplains Through the Chaplains Who Serve Them
So people who have read my blog for some time may know a little about AAC, but I’m sure they and newer readers who haven’t heard of Adopt-a-Chaplain before would like to know more about it. Please tell us how—and why—AAC supports deployed chaplains.
Ben: Occasionally someone will introduce me as a “founder” of Adopt-a-Chaplain. I love that. It gives an opportunity to talk about how God started the ministry. A small group of us meet each Friday for breakfast and encouragement. In January 2005 we had our “burning bush” experience in the form of a forwarded email from a chaplain in Afghanistan who needed encouragement. It’s probably a good thing God didn’t tell us as much about what He had in mind as He did Moses. Had we known then what we know now we may have said like Moses, “Here am I, Lord; please send someone else.” We adopted Luis and the rest as they say is history.
Lillie: I know you and the rest of the AAC leadership are Christian. However, you don’t limit your support to chaplains who share your faith. What is required for a chaplain to be adopted? What faiths are represented among adopted chaplains?
Ben: Early in the ministry the question came up as to who we would adopt. Following a vigorous debate and discussion that lasted perhaps 15 seconds our conclusion was: “If God sends a chaplain to us He expects us to support them–no questions asked! “As a consequence we’ve adopted and supported 600+ chaplains from just about every letter of the ecclesiastical alphabet. God sends them and we support them.
Lillie: What kinds of support do you provide?
Ben: The ministry began in January 2005 when a chaplain in Afghanistan needed someone to encourage him. Three of us adopted him for prayer and one of our group started communicating with him. After a few weeks the chaplain was asked if there was anything we could get him to help with his ministry. He said he could use some snacks and goodies to encourage his soldiers to hang around after chapel so we started sending packages of goodies. Over the years the kinds of items we ship have changed to meet changing conditions. Now an increasing amount of what we send are tools for ministry more than goodies.
Initially folks at home weren’t shipping a lot of goods down range. Over the past couple years we’ve seen an explosion of corporate and community groups sending “stuff” to chaplains and individual units. The few boxes we send a chaplain each month isn’t a lot compared to amount of boxes they receive from secular sources.
To me the boxes we send are more about what they tell the chaplain than the contents of the boxes. I see them more as a tangible reminder to the chaplains that someone is thinking about and praying for them and their family. One chaplain said, “I need to know that someone other than my family is praying for me.”
Another said he came back late at night following a 14 hour ride along on a mission with his soldiers. He was totally exhausted and had nothing left to give. When he opened the door to his room he saw a box from us on his bunk. That, he said, reminded him that he wasn’t alone and that someone cared for and was praying for him personally.
Lillie: What is the one thing the chaplains request most?
Ben: That’s an easy one. Prayer. More than one chaplain has said if they had to choose between packages or prayer—prayer wins every time. Prayer is something anyone can do. One of our group was talking to a lady about the ministry when she commented that she would love to help but was on a very limited fixed income budget. She was asked, “Do you know how to pray?” “Of course,” was her answer. When she prays for chaplains and our troops, she’s as much involved in ministry as those who give money, goods, or time.
Lillie: Have you had any unusual requests from chaplains?
Ben: Yes. Probably the most unusual request came from a Navy chaplain at the Warrior Transition Center in Kuwait. All Navy personnel entering and leaving the combat zone go though the center. When the Navy transitioned to new digital cammos, the Master Chief asked “chaps” if he could get a male mannequin in order to display the proper wearing of the the new cammies. Within 24 hours of receiving the request, “Steve” the mannequin of the proper size was on it’s way to the very surprised and happy Master Chief.
Lillie: You’ve seen many “God things” through this ministry. Will you tell us about some of those experiences?
Ben: We define a God Thing like this: God already has the answer on the way before we even know the need exists. What some might call a coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous. Here’s a couple examples:
I received an email from one of our chaplains one evening. His unit was preparing for a humanitarian mission to a local village and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but the army has sent us two pallets of toothpaste but no toothbrushes.” The next morning we received an email from a group in New York saying they had been supporting a unit downrange that had redeployed. It went on to say they had two cases of tooth brushes left over and had already shipped them to us hoping we could use them. The answer was on the way before we knew of the need.
An eighth grade student at a parochial school decided to enlist his fellow students in a project to write letters to our troops. Once they were written they then wondered about how to get them to the troops. Following a phone call, the letters were delivered to us and in turn we shipped them to chaplains. The chaplain knows who isn’t getting any mail and he’s able to hand them a “letter from home.” Late one evening a few weeks later the young man’s mom sent an email. She said her 7th grade daughter’s group wanted to write letters also and asked if they could do that. In the email she said they anticipated having 100 letters.
Early the next morning I received an email from one of our chaplains asking if we could write letters to some of his soldiers who weren’t getting any mail and attached a list of names and addresses. It was early and my inbox had quite a morning backup so I went on to the next email. Later in the day I came back and opened the attachment expecting to see a few names. When I looked at the list it seemed quite long so I counted the names. He asked for letters for 100 soldiers and the list of names came to …drum roll please… 100! His question had already been answered. In short order, each of his 100 soldiers far from home near Baghdad received a letter from an eighth grade student in San Jose, California.
Lillie: I love to hear those God Thing stories, and I know you’ve experienced many of them. You’re known as the chaplain to the chaplains. Just what does that mean and how did that come about?
Ben: To be honest, being called the “chaplain to chaplains” was never one of my goals, and sometimes it makes me a little uncomfortable to be called such. A few months into the ministry we had a “Jethro moment.” Moses was operating as a one-man band handling all the leadership chores during Israel’s desert days until Jethro, his father-in-law, suggested he delegate some responsibilities to others. A division of responsibilities was made, freeing up Moses’ time to do what he was called to do…lead the nation. The three of us who had our “burning bush” experience that Friday morning decided to follow that biblical principle and divide responsibilities based on our gifts and backgrounds.
Frank Bergandi with years of experience as a CEO in the software industry assumed the role of overall leader. Dan Hoebeke, a lawyer by training, works in the areas of planned giving and is extremely adept at networking, so he became the point person for public contact. I was a pastor and know the “ministerial truth” that chaplains don’t wear a blue shirt with a big red “S” on the front so it seemed logical I should assume the responsibility of communicating with the deployed chaplains. It wasn’t long until we saw God’s blessing and recognized that each of us had “come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”
Most people don’t realize that every person in the military has someone who is responsible for and accountable for them…except the chaplain. A chaplain put it like this: “The chaplain spends all his time looking out for his soldiers but no one looks out for the chaplain.” A Marine commander in Iraq was a little more direct when he asked the senior chaplain in their area of operations “Who looks out for your chaplains?” Chaplain said “I do.” The commander then asked “Who looks out for you…and don’t tell me God.” The commander recognized the need for the chaplain to have someone who looked out for him.
In the interest of full disclosure, the military does have a structure of supervisory chaplains, but it has an inherent drawback. Deployment in a combat zone is physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding and many chaplains seem to hit a wall at some point during deployment. It isn’t a matter of if but rather when, and the inevitable question arises: “What’s a chaplain to do when it happens?” Command says the chaplain can come to them with problems. But chaplains know it’s not a good career move to go to command with serious questions, problems, or doubts because their fitness reports, one criteria in consideration for promotion, are written by command.
As a former pastor I’ve been there done that and understand their dilemma. Chaplains put their pants on one leg at a time like the warriors they serve, have the same physical limitations, emotional pressures, and family issues at home. Even though they have the same issues that weigh their warriors down, they’re expected to be up 100% of the time. One chaplain commenting on the pressures they face then asked, “But who wants to talk to a depressed chaplain?”
They need to unload some of the burdens they’re carrying but are afraid it might have a negative impact on their career. They know I’m a refuge outside the military structure where they can unload their fears, frustrations, anger (yes anger), or doubts knowing that whatever they say goes no further. During communications with one chaplain I sensed he was rapidly approaching “the wall” and commented, “….you seem a little up tight; what’s going on?” Within a couple hours I received a three-page single-spaced 8 pt type “dump.” Yeah, he was uptight and needed to unload months of frustrations on someone. I’m glad it was me and not his wife or commander.
One chaplain getting ready to return from deployment said it like this: “You were a life preserver in an ocean of emotion.” I don’t have a lot of great answers but I am a good listener. When it’s all said and done, chaplains usually aren’t looking for answers but for an understanding ear so they can say what’s eating at them. Saying or writing what they’re feeling is a pressure release or as one said “I didn’t realize how much it would help to say what I was thinking and relieve the pressure.”
Lillie: Most nonprofit organizations use donated funds for salaries and administrative expenses. How can AAC operate as a completely volunteer organization, with no paid staff or facilities?
Ben: That’s a question people ask, especially when they look at the nonprofit tax form the ministry files and see nothing but zeros on the lines related to overhead and administration. Simply put, it’s one of those daily God Things. We operate a little differently than some ministries. We never ask anyone for money or for supplies to ship. We believe that 100% of the money that is donated should and does go to ministry needs for chaplains and the warriors they serve. When I travel to meet and visit returned chaplains I pay my own way. I told my wife that when I win the lottery I was going to meet every chaplain when they come home from deployment. Her reply was, “You won’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.” So that’s why I haven’t won……
I went to the post office to mail a flat rate box to our first chaplain in Afghanistan. After returning I was at my computer feeling quite fluffed up about what I had done. As I sat there revelling in what the “great” thing It dawned on me the chaplain had 1,000 soldiers. I found myself asking the same question as the disciples when Jesus told them to have 5,000+ sit down for lunch when all they had was enough fish and bread for a couple sandwiches: “What is this among so many?”
God’s answer was: Whatever we have, when it’s put in His hands, it IS enough. Almost immediately we began to get emails from people across the country asking, “How can we help?” Supplies began to arrive, and as the number of chaplains increased, groups from around the country assumed responsibility of caring for “their” deployed chaplain.
Occasionally an affiliate group will apologize that the economy has negatively affected donations so they’re not sending as much as before. My response is always the same: God asks that we be faithful with what we’re given and not worry about being fruitful. When we’re faithful with what He’s given us, He produces the fruit.
A pastor once asked, “Where does the money come from for this ministry?” I was being a little facetious when I said, “I don’t know.” I went on to say that when we need money to buy stamps for 100 boxes, it is there. When we finished packing each Thursday, the shelves were completely bare—even the crumbs were packed. Before we left people would ask, “Do we come back next week?” The answer was always “Yes.” The next week the shelves were full again. I went on to tell the pastor this is a 21st century example of Elijah’s oil and meal. In 5+ years, we’ve never missed a packing or shipping date due to lack of goods to ship, money for postage, or willing hands to pack the boxes.
At lunch with one of our Navy chaplains who had returned, we were talking about the number of troop support organizations that have grown up since the war against terrorists began in 2001 when he said something that I’ll never forget. “When I arrived in Iraq with the Marines,” he said, “I sent emails to 12 troop support organizations requesting support. Eleven responded with a fundraising letter but you responded with, ‘How can we help you?’”
I was discussing the ministry with a businessman one day when he asked, “What’s your next step?” I had no idea what he was asking so asked what he meant. He replied “When the troops come home, what are your plans for the future?” My response was, “When our troops come home, we go home. “
Adopt-a-Chaplain isn’t a job—it’s a ministry. As long as our troops are in harm’s way, we’ll be at our post supporting them. Initially in 2005 when the ministry began, we figured it would last about a year but almost 6 years later our initial estimate of how long the ministry would be needed turned out to be about as accurate as budget projections from the Congressional Budget Office.
Lillie: Where can people learn more about Adopt-a-Chaplain and how they can get involved?
Ben: They can get a general over view by visiting www.adopt-a-chaplain.org
We send out a weekly newsletter containing some of the highlights of the ministry. If anyone would like to receive the Highlights, email me at email@example.com
Lillie: I look forward to each issue of the Highlights. I’m disappointed that you aren’t finishing your book, because you’re an excellent writer, and your message is important. However, I recognize how important your ministry is. I’m glad you’re putting your outstanding writing skills to work delivering a great message every week in Adopt-a-Chaplain’s e-mail newsletter, and I’m glad that Adopt-a-Chaplain is ministering to our chaplains to help them minister to their flocks. Thank you and all the Adopt-a-Chaplains leadership, volunteers, and supporters!
Ben: At one time I hoped the 24-hour time limit for each day didn’t apply to me because I was busy doing good things. I finally accepted that God wasn’t going to give extra hours I needed so I had to make decisions about priorities. As much as I enjoy writing and teaching it became apparent God’s direction was for me to focus my time and energies in ministry to our chaplains. That was the right decision for me. Perhaps in the future when our warriors and chaplains return home I’ll return to writing and teaching. But for now I’m where God wants me to serve.
Lillie: Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked?
Ben: Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We couldn’t do what we do without God’s help or the help of thousands of volunteers. A big “thank you” to the thousands of volunteers across the country who have the passion to be the hands of Jesus reaching out to our troops by supporting their chaplains through prayer and packages. Together we serve and together our troops are blessed. Without the thousands across the country who have joined hands with us, we could do very little.
Initially I was a bit concerned about the caliber and quality of the chaplains we would be encountering. But after serving 600+ deployed chaplains, I can say our troops have an outstanding corps of chaplains caring for them and their families.
I once was young but now am old and have been involved in a number of ministries. Adopt-a-Chaplain ministry has been the most productive, God directed, and blessed of any I’ve been associated with, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be a small part of what God is doing.
Lillie: Thank you for your ministry and thank you for visiting. I’m sure I didn’t ask everything my readers want to know so I hope you’ll check in during the day to answer questions.
Ben: Thank you for the opportunity to share the passion I and so many across the country feel for ministering to our troops in harm’s way through the chaplains who serve them.
As you know, I’m technically challenged when it comes to new communication processes. I’m not that far removed from the hammer, chisel, and stone tablet era, but if I can answer any questions I’d be happy to do so.