Military chaplains deployed in pandemic


The skies were gray. The faithful had to wear masks and keep their distance.

But Lt. Cmdr. Genevieve Clark, a United Methodist chaplain in the U.S. Navy, was still able to lead an Easter sunrise service on the flight deck of the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship deployed to Los Angeles to help in the coronavirus pandemic.

“I tried to encourage these sailors that although there is chaos and even clouds literally covering the sunrise during the Easter crisis of 2020, we can still be and are still being the hands and feet of Jesus,” Clark said.

Earlier on April 12, and across the country, Maryland Army National Guard Chaplain (Capt.) Amor Woolsey led Easter morning services at two guard armories. Social distancing was required there too, but that didn’t get in the way.

“It was such wonderful worship,” said Woolsey, a United Methodist elder. “We celebrated the risen Christ together.”

Woolsey is a 10-year veteran of guard chaplaincy and knows the men and women she counsels aren’t fed by spiritual food alone.

“I brought little Easter treats for them,” she said.

Some 400 United Methodist clergy serve as U.S. military chaplains, but Clark and Woolsey appear to be the only ones on special deployments related to the coronavirus threat.

Chaplain (Capt.) Amor Woolsey, a United Methodist elder, has been mobilized with the Maryland Army National Guard as it sets up coronavirus testing sites and distributes food in the Baltimore area. Woolsey’s fulltime job is leading two United Methodist churches in Maryland. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michael Davis Jr.
Chaplain (Capt.) Amor Woolsey, a United Methodist elder, has been mobilized with the Maryland Army National Guard as it sets up coronavirus testing sites and distributes food in the Baltimore area. Woolsey’s fulltime job is leading two United Methodist churches in Maryland. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michael Davis Jr.

The Rev. Mitchell Lewis is unaware of others, and he leads the United Methodist Endorsing Agency, which qualifies clergy for service in a range of non-military and military settings.

Lewis himself served 26 years as an Army chaplain — but he never got deployed because of a pandemic.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” he said. “I’ve never come across anything quite like it.”

Clark, 47, grew up in Oregon in a United Methodist family and felt a call to ministry in high school. She went to Dakota Wesleyan University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, becoming a United Methodist elder in 2000.

She first served local churches, but at the 2007 Pacific Northwest Annual Conference met a Navy chaplain and began to feel what she calls a “call within a call.” A year later, she was a Navy chaplain herself, beginning a career that has seen her deployed on ships and stationed at bases.          

“I just really felt I wanted to serve God and country,” Clark said. “This has been absolutely wonderful. I love it every day.”

About three weeks ago, Clark was assigned to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego and looking forward to a summer deployment aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Then the coronavirus pandemic gripped the U.S., and the USNS Mercy was tasked with taking on hospital patients to free up bed space for expected coronavirus victims.

Chaplains would be needed.

“I was offered the opportunity to come aboard the ship,” Clark said. “I had about 24 hours’ notice.”

For now, Clark lives on the USNS Mercy, temporarily separated from her husband.

“We care for everyone on board, regardless of religious affiliation or no religious affiliation,” she said of herself and fellow chaplains. “We do that by walking around, visiting with people, hearing their stories. If there’s something we can help them with that’s specifically spiritual, we try to talk to them in their spiritual language.”

As one of three Protestant chaplains aboard the 1,000-bed ship, Clark helped conduct a range of Holy Week services, in a variety of worship styles.

Lewis thinks United Methodist chaplains are especially suited for such work.

“I’ve called United Methodists the utility infielders of the chaplaincy,” he said. “We can do everything from gospel services to high liturgical services. We’re comfortable across the board.”

United Methodist Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Genevieve Clark leads a worship service in the chapel aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy, which is docked in Los Angeles. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden.
United Methodist Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Genevieve Clark leads a worship service in the chapel aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy, which is docked in Los Angeles. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden.

For Clark, the flexibility has stretched to include social distancing.

“We have been able to worship as a group, even if we’re six feet away from one another,” she said.

So far, the USNS Mercy has taken in small numbers of hospital patients, and some have been discharged. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said some healthy nursing home patients may be brought onto the ship.

Meanwhile, several members of Mercy’s crew have tested positive for coronavirus, leading them to be isolated off-ship.

Clark said that in an anxious time, she and crew members have shared about good things happening, such as less smog in Los Angeles as traffic has abated due to the general quarantine.

She counseled one sailor whose wife had a baby in his absence.

“Missing the birth of his child was difficult, but he was very thankful the baby came and was healthy,” Clark said.

While Clark is a full-time chaplain, Woolsey’s main work is leading Calvary United Methodist and Wye Carmichael United Methodist, two small churches in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland.

Woolsey, a 37-year-old Wesley Theological Seminary graduate and granddaughter of a Methodist missionary, embraces her life in parish ministry. But she also has felt called to part-time military chaplaincy, feeling she can help ease the burden of those traumatized by wartime service and separation from loved ones.

Gov. Larry Hogan activated the Maryland National Guard March 12 to provide general support as so many businesses and nonprofits closed because of coronavirus. Woolsey was called up, temporarily leaving her husband and 13-year-old son for residence in a barracks.

She’s been with the guard as it has set up coronavirus testing sites and substituted for nonprofits in delivering food to the needy.

“The most powerful ministry within the guard is the ministry of presence, being there when they’re doing their thing, even if it’s just filling sandbags,” Woolsey said. “They appreciate their chaplain being with them.”

That’s especially true when she has something sweet or salty to hand out.

“I have snacks beyond snacks, and that boosts morale,” Woolsey said.

This Holy Week found her recording messages for her churches’ online worship, while also leading services for guard members.

On Easter, she was glad to be wearing fatigues and a stole, bringing what she called a “faith over fear” message to some of those deployed with her.

“I reminded them that as Christ brings hope to us, we bring light and hope to those we interact with — especially during this time.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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