Mel Baars O'Malley: None of us can do much on our own

Teamwork is an essential part of military life, as in this tug-of-war competition between Army soliders and multinational allies during a NATO exercise. Photo by U.S. Army Pfc. James Dutkavich.

In a divisive time, when so many leaders regard working together as a sign of weakness, an Army chaplain shares a lesson she’s learned in the military: Whatever our differences, we must figure out how to cooperate. It’s the only way we can all survive.

After five years as an Army chaplain, I am no longer so sure that 11 a.m. Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life -- at least, not for those in the military. From the very first time I led worship at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio in 2011, I have been struck again and again by the racial diversity of life in the military -- both in the pews and elsewhere. I have never attended church services that were more integrated or have been a part of a more diverse workplace or community.

As a soldier, I often marvel at the richly varied environment in which I minister. Earlier this year, I looked around during a staff meeting and realized that most of my superior officers -- including my direct supervisor -- were African-Americans. I doubt that would be the case if I were pastoring a church in my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Just as in the civilian world, some people in the military show up for work for a paycheck. But those soldiers don’t stay in the service long. For many who join, the military is a vocation, a calling. Learning to work with everyone who is assigned to your unit, regardless of background, politics or theological beliefs, is just part of the deal. In the military, the initial motivation to serve one’s country often becomes overshadowed by the desire to serve one’s comrades.

When I was a divinity student, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, then the dean of Duke Chapel, gave a sermon about war. He talked about how soldiers on the battlefield don’t fight for their country but for their friends.

“You don’t hurl yourself into the shelling and rifle fire of no man’s land because you believe in freedom, justice or the flag,” he said. “You do it because you see your friend Bobby’s been hit, and you can’t bear for him to die, because he’s dearer to you than your own life.”

Jesus talked about love in terms of self-sacrifice when he said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV).

This is the kind of love that soldiers talk about when they describe their experiences in combat, when they tell me about a buddy who put himself or herself directly in danger so that the rest of the team would be okay. It is a love forged by living so closely with one another that it is hard to know where one life ends and another begins.

Some observers have argued -- approvingly and not -- that the military has sometimes been used as a social experiment, as a place to test and bring about social change. The United States Armed Forces, for example, were racially integrated by President Harry Truman in 1948, almost two decades before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin.

I don’t know why the military has been more successful at racial integration than many other institutions in American life. Maybe the military offers a more controlled environment, where change can more easily be regulated and enforced. But I wonder whether it’s more because military life requires teamwork. Survival in combat demands working together. You simply cannot survive battle on your own.

When I was an undergrad, Duke often publicized its student body’s impressive diversity. But it wasn’t until I joined the Army that I felt I was really exposed to people very different from me.

When I was a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet, our unit was composed of students from both Duke and North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a historically black college just a few miles away. Unlike most Duke students I knew, many of the NCCU cadets had not taken the traditional path to college. Some had children or worked full time while going to school -- or both.

But one thing we did have in common was the Army’s expectations for us, including a physical fitness test that we had to pass twice a year in order to keep our Army scholarships. As a cross-country runner, I never worried about the test, but many of my fellow cadets did. One cold April morning, as I finished my required 2-mile run, I saw an NCCU cadet struggling to make it to the finish line. I continued down the track to encourage her.

She was having a hard time running because she had been up most of the previous night taking care of her sick daughter. That day, running the final lap with her, I was as invested in her finishing the run as I had been in myself a few minutes earlier. Neither of us could succeed alone. Both of us had to finish if our team was to succeed.

If the Army has taught me anything, it’s that none of us can do much on our own. This is why on the first day of basic training every soldier is assigned a “battle buddy.” Battle buddies are to stay together at all times, even on trips to the restroom. No lone rangers are allowed. Teamwork is what matters. And teamwork involves everyone.

The same holds true in military chaplaincy. Although many chaplains with whom I work are in denominations that don’t ordain women, our theological and biblical differences don’t prevent us from working together. When my Southern Baptist or Presbyterian Church in America colleagues invite me to sit with them and discuss ministry, we transcend difference.

No wonder I’ve been baffled by the growing divisiveness in our country in recent years. Whether in politics or in the church, so many leaders seem to view working together as a sign of weakness. Dialogue and compromise are apparently a disgrace. In the military, we are expected to figure out how to cooperate, whatever our differences. It is the only way we can all survive.

Last summer, I was privileged to give the opening prayer at my unit’s Pride Month celebration. Our speaker was the first “out” general officer in the Army. About five minutes into the general’s talk, her wife interrupted to announce that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

This couple, who a few years earlier could not have been seen together in public, received a standing ovation. Watching so many soldiers celebrate this historic moment, I wondered how many had once favored the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or were even still opposed to same-sex marriage.

But that is what is so powerful about being in relationship. When you care about another person, when you are connected in friendship, then you can love him or her, even when you don’t agree.

Those of us in the church already know this -- or should. As the Bible tells us, we are many and different, but we are all part of one body. Just as the eye can’t say to the hand, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21), neither can any of us dismiss another. If any part of the body doesn’t think it belongs, then it is the rest of the body’s job to nurture whatever member is hurting until there is restoration. Healing for one member is healing for all.

The military is far from perfect, but I can appreciate the opportunities that I am given each day to practice love, not with neighbors I have chosen, but with the team I have been given. They teach me every day that relationship, being woven together despite difference, is about more than survival. It is about confessing and forgiving and healing, which in turn makes room for everyone to thrive.

Sounds like church. Doesn’t it?