From Las Vegas stages to Air Force chaplaincy
Presbyterian military chaplain learns ‘you never know where God’s calling you to’
God’s plan for Air Force chaplain Mitchell Holley led him a long way from where he expected to be. Holley might have thought one day he’d be entertaining troops, not ministering to them.
“I saw Singing in the Rain when I was 5 years old and I told my mom I wanted to be able to tap dance like Gene Kelly, so she put me in a dancing school,” Holley said.
Holley kept dancing all the way through college. After he graduated, he moved to Las Vegas, where the opportunities for dancers were pretty good. He auditioned for a couple of shows and started working there.
Right about this time, the mentality of the Las Vegas atmosphere changed from a family resort destination to the “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” mantra. For a young man of strong faith from a Southern Baptist background, Holley did not thrive in the new “sin city.”
“That was the last two years I was there, and the environment significantly changed,” said Holley. “I never proselytized or anything like that, but people would tie knots in my costumes, they would make up stories about me, they would do all kinds of things. I know that was part of the atmosphere but people started saying horrible things on stage like ‘Jesus sucks’ trying to antagonize me. I made up my mind that was no longer meant for me.”
Holley and his wife had been attending Green Valley Presbyterian Church while they were living in Las Vegas, and one day Holley was grappling with his future when his wife asked him what he was most happy doing.
“I said, ‘Working in the church and serving other people.’ That was where my ministry call was started,” he said. “While I was in that environment of the spiritual persecution, I heard my call to ministry. I learned to love the folks that were doing those things to me.”
So Holley and his wife left Vegas so he could attend Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. On the way to Austin, one of Holley’s friends, an Air Force officer, told him he thought he would make a great military chaplain, something Holley had never thought about before. When recruiters came to the seminary for a visit, Holley thought of his friend’s comment and decided to explore the idea.
“I started talking with (Air Force chaplain recruiter) Ed Brogan and started that whole chaplain candidate process, which was great because it was a great opportunity for me to learn about the military and the military life and make sure it was a good fit for me as well,” Holley said.
His first assignments were as a reservist, but Holley reappointed last year as an active duty member and is now stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. He hopes to deploy at some point.
“Chaplains like to deploy because that’s where the best ministry is,” he said. “I think people don’t realize the impact that you have on those military members, especially those who are going overseas and coming back.”
Holley said the Air Force has changed its approach with chaplains in recent years to be more unit-focused, like the Army and Navy have also done. It used to be that the chaplain was found at the chapel, mainly for worship services, but Holley’s office is in the unit office, and the focus is on being among the troops.
“My office is in with the units so I get to actually see them face to face. Even in downtime I’m in their area. You have to be present, especially with people who are very focused. They need to be able to see the chaplain because otherwise it’s a distant thing and they’re not going to think about ‘Oh I’m going to see him,’” Holley said. “People drop in all the time. I do a lot of impromptu counseling and things like that.”
Holley is happy with where his path has led. Still, it’s a long way from where he ever expected to be.
“It’s amazing to see where I’ve come. It seems a really big leap from a Las Vegas dancer to an Air Force chaplain,” he said. “You never know where God’s calling you to.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church. A frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service, Toni is a military service veteran.