A heart for soldiers
Girlhood in war-torn Lebanon shaped Army chaplain’s call to ministry
On the day the Rev. Benjamin Weir was taken hostage in Beirut, Lebanon, in May 1984, the Rev. Lucy Der-Garabedian was sitting in a classroom at the Near East School of Theology (NEST) awaiting the arrival of her Christian education instructor, Carol Weir.
Carol Weir, who was always punctual, never appeared that day.
Abducted by a terrorist group while he and his wife, Carol, were on their way to NEST, Benjamin Weir would spend 16 months in captivity before his eventual release.
For Der-Garabedian, Benjamin Weir’s kidnapping and the catastrophic events of the Lebanese Civil War — especially the death of her older brother at age 20 — would change the course of the young theology student’s life. In 1986, the profound loss of her brother, a soldier in the Lebanese army, awakened in her a call to service that would take her years to fully act upon and wholly discern.
“I have always had a passion for soldiers,” Der-Garabedian said.
Eventually receiving her master’s degree in Christian Education from NEST, Der-Garabedian sought the assistance of Ted Siverns — a professor sent by the Presbyterian Church of Canada to teach at NEST — and his wife, Betty, to help her to emigrate from Lebanon to the United States.
Upon settling in the States in 1989, she enrolled at the former Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now Union-PSCE, in Richmond, VA, where she received a second master’s degree and later an M.Div.
Ordained by the Presbytery of Lake Huron in 1993, it was while Der-Garabedian was serving as pastor of Fairgrove Presbyterian Church in Michigan that a friend who was a reservist chaplain rekindled her passion for the military. Citing her considerable language skills — she is fluent in Arabic, Armenian, Turkish and English — Der-Garabedian’s friend questioned her as to why she had not ever joined the chaplaincy.
“I am a female,” Der-Garabedian recalled telling him. “To which my friend said, ‘We have female chaplains in the Army.’ I didn’t know that was a possibility.”
Discovering that the chaplaincy application was short and entirely manageable, she simply decided to complete it. Less than three weeks later, Der-Garabedian had an interview in Atlanta with the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel. PCCMP is the denomination’s endorsing body and receives both financial and staff support through the PC(USA) Office of Vocation, a shared ministry of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly.
Upon learning of her acceptance by PCCMP, Der-Garabedian found herself at a crossroads.
“What do I do with my congregation,” she thought, as she attempted to discern where God was calling her.
Der-Garabedian received a tremendous outpouring of support and encouragement from the members of her church, and the pastor with a heart for soldiers left the Presbytery of Lake Huron a year later for basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C. There, she experienced the culture shock of becoming acclimated to a life in the military, especially to an environment in which intimidation is often the primary mode of motivation.
“There were times as I look back — and even now — where I’ve asked myself, ‘Is this the biggest mistake I ever made?’” Der-Garabedian said. “Then, in the midst of questioning, something reminds me that this is where I’m called to be.”
One of the many times that Der-Garabedian sensed God was confirming her call to serve in a military environment was during her first station in Fort Stewart, GA, the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi. There, she counseled a young soldier who — harboring an almost uncontrollable rage toward his abusive father — was both suicidal and homicidal.
“I had to listen to him day after day pouring out his poison until he was himself ready to listen,” Der-Garabedian said. “In the military chaplaincy, we talk about a ‘ministry of presence,’ a ministry of ‘being with.’ By my being with him, a bond developed between us because he saw that someone cared enough to listen to him. I then shared with him that someone loved him enough that He was willing to sacrifice his Son.”
Der-Garabedian said that the young man, who had no prior religious background, accepted Jesus Christ, saying that he couldn’t wait to go back home and share that love with his abusive father.
“Seeing that sparkle of hope, direction and meaning in his life was yet another reminder for me of God’s reality and transforming power in our lives,” she said. “Today that young soldier is a minister.”
In her current assignment with the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade based in Hawaii, Der-Garabedian continues to offer counseling to military families affected by the stress and tension of individual deployments.
“One of the gifts that we have as chaplains is our privileged communication,” she said. “Family members know that they have a sacred space and that the system will not penalize them. That creates a place where differences can be shared and misunderstandings resolved, knowing that the Wounded Healer is present in our midst.”
That same support system has also benefited Der-Garabedian through a number of critical transitions in her own life and ministry. Ten years ago, she became the primary caregiver for her elderly mother and father, who came to live with her on the base. Because the Army exercises such care for her, her frequent travel to provide pastoral care for units in Arizona, Texas, Japan and Iraq is not a source of stress.
“It’s great to be part of the Army culture where I know that in my absence they will visit my mother,” she said, adding that her father died in September 2008. “I know that my family’s basic needs are being taken care of.”
Der-Garabedian also deeply appreciates being part of the Presbyterian culture.
“As chaplains, we often feel a disconnect with the denomination because we are dispersed,” she said. “Having chaplains Brogan and Chadwick (of the PCCMP) really helps. Their visits and their communication are a constant reminder that we belong. The annual retreat that they hold for us every summer strengthens that bond and at the same time empowers our connectedness in knowing other chaplains who belong to the same tradition.”
She is also grateful for the many churches that regularly pray for her and for the hundreds of Presbyterian military chaplains who on active duty.
“Whenever I am drained, I know that people will lift me up,” she said.
Claiming that congregational connection and remembering her own foundational roots in Christian education — she is now working on her D.Min from Erskine Theological Seminary — Der-Garabedian described a possible new direction for her future ministry. She sees her primary gift being the ability to bring different groups together in order to “find common ground where reconciliation can take place and God’s Shalom can be experienced and celebrated.”
“Moving forward, I foresee that God might use this current environment to send me to Iraq to work on the educational structure,” she said. “My project is focused on finding common Christian beliefs and on teaching youth in the various military chapels, so that they can profess their faith in Jesus Christ and assume leadership roles in a diverse Christian environment.”
It is a project that will also honor the memory of her brother, whose own aspirations were extinguished too soon.
“It’s interesting to see that the hopes and dreams of youth, whether in the military or civilian culture, are the same,” she said.