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Becoming a Humanist Chaplain in the Military: An Open Letter from Jason Heap

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On July 22, 2013, reporter Kimberly Winston published an article in Religion News Service titled “Humanists Want a Military Chaplain to Call Their Own,” which featured Jason Heap, who is applying to become the first recognized U.S. Navy chaplain serving humanists, atheists and other non-religious servicemembers.

Below is an open letter from Mr. Heap to members of the American Humanist Association on his reasons for applying to become a Humanist Chaplain in the U.S. Navy.

Dear All,

I hadn’t anticipated some of the responses that were given with the publication of the initial article regarding my application to the US Navy as a potential chaplain. Having lived away from the U.S. for 12 years, I had long since forgotten how something like the issue of an application from a non-theist chaplain could have sparked such discussion. Most of the responses are easy to ignore; after all, didn’t Andy Warhol mention something about people’s 15 minutes of fame?  Responses that are emotive, caustic and vitriolic are also the ones I find rather humorous, due to being illogical and nothing more than stating what has already been stated before in various ways.  However, there is one response that stuck out that has caused me to think: “What do we know about this person?  Is he actually qualified to counsel anyone?”  

“On paper”, I have met the Navy’s requirements in terms of experience, having worked as a Minister of Music and Students in a United Methodist Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, plus interim pastorate work/pulpit-fill in various churches in north central Texas. I also have met their basic requirements for qualifications and education, in addition to a Master’s degree from Oxford in ecclesiastical history (I studied non-conformist controversies regarding their views of the afterlife, especially one church leader who publicly denied the existence of heaven, hell and future punishment altogether), and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education that has allowed me to work as a teacher in the UK’s schools. 

As a teacher, I taught Religious Education and Philosophy for five years, and during this time, I have been responsible for not only teaching students about major religions and worldviews (including atheism, Humanism and even nihilism), but helping them understand themselves and their own existential views to become better people and to live in pluralistic societies as good citizens. 

Following this, I also managed international schools in the Middle East, West Africa and also in China, and have continued this work for the past five years. As you can see, counseling, capacity-building, cultivating relationships and empowering people from all ages and all walks of life has been part of my experience and something rather different that I would like to offer the Navy than someone who is fresh out of seminary. I am also in the final stages of a Doctor of Education degree with a specialization in leadership, and this new set of skills acquired through academic research also has relevance to my application to the Navy.

I lived most of my life as “that kid who…” until I spoke with someone today who asked me if I thought I was a little too old to be making this application. “Too old? ME?” I’m 38, yes, but I still haven’t even begun to slow down! I do not wish, in any way, to detract from younger applicants to the chaplaincy. However, if I were a soldier or sailor of 18—25 years of age, how much “life experience guidance” would I be prepared to take from someone who has recently graduated from theological training and done 2 years’ ministerial work, making the chaplain to be about 26 or 27 years old?

Within my 38 years, there is a lot of “life” that I have experienced. I am a child who does not know his real father but was surrounded by love and support by adopted parents who came from hard-working backgrounds: one as a high school dropout and the other who struggled to finish night school. We had to move due to my father’s work and I understand the challenges of making new friends and acclimatising to new surroundings (try moving to different places around the world with this one!). I witnessed the cruelty of the job market within my family, forcing my father to take early retirement or impacting on my siblings’ employment prospects. I found school to be difficult and graduated in one of the lowest percentiles of my class rankings. I held many part-time jobs to help pay my way through university to supplement whatever generous gifts were provided to me by friends of the family. I married very young and was unsuccessful with this relationship until it ended up in a separation and divorce. Moving around the world has caused me to encounter the pain of numerous “good-byes”, as those relationships with my friends and family changed either through divorce, moving-on and losing contact, or death. I have learned the joys of finding someone with whom I could rekindle a loving relationship, and after being together for 6 years, we are still together.    

If any of my “life” stories sound familiar to ones that you have lived, and you felt like sharing it with someone who could not only empathize with your experience but understand your perspective as a non-theist, then I could be the chaplain within whom you would confine. You see, as I am in the process of writing this letter, and by the time it takes to have it published onto the Internet, there are thousands of our men and women in the services who have their own life stories and issues that they wish to speak to a chaplain about, but are unable to have these conversations because they do not have access to a non-theist chaplain. Please don’t misunderstand: the pastoral training that all military chaplains must have and continually develop are provided to meet the needs of all military personnel and their families. However, just as a Roman Catholic would prefer to speak with a priest, or a Jewish person with a rabbi, or a Muslim person with an imam, or a Protestant Christian with a minister, non-theist people would prefer to have access to someone who understands their basic points of view and how they interpret life. As a Humanist and a scholar of religion, not only do I understand the viewpoints of non-theist people from a range of worldviews which would allow me to offer them sympathy and support, my own life’s experience allows me to offer empathy and a person to walk by their side to share in both their troubles and triumphs.

There is one other ‘personal’  matter that I wish to share with you: I have made this application because I want to serve my country—to give back something to the people who have given me so much over my life—and to serve others who share similar values and perspectives. My application has not been the easiest, as I have had to coordinate people from five countries to serve as references. I flew to the UK from China before returning to Philadelphia to make my application in person, and the airfare alone was far from inexpensive, not to mention other costs with rentals, hotels, food, etc., none of which has been defrayed by anyone or any other organization, but from my own earnings. If I am given the commission from the Navy, I will return to the U.S. to start up a new home and new life, including “daily” things like a place to stay, insurance, bank accounts, furniture, a car: it’s like starting from square one all over again, not to mention adjusting to life in my home country once again. Such a move isn’t for the faint-hearted, but if this is what is necessary to begin what I consider to be a commitment of 20+ years to service in the Navy, then I’m happy to do so.

Finally, to those whom have read the news articles and have offered words of encouragement and resilience, you have my gratitude. There is a large network of people supporting me through the American Humanist Association, the British Humanist Association, the MAAF and other organizations, and it is their work that is truly deserving of all honour and recognition. Unity through harmony and strength from pursuing a passion for the possible.

My kindest regards,
Jason Heap

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