Serving God's People in Uniform
"The wonder of this job is that there are no typical days," says Rear Admiral Alan T. Baker (MDiv '87), who serves a dual role as Chaplain of the U.S. Marine Corps and Deputy Chief of Navy Chaplains. "Whether preaching at a Christmas Eve worship service in Iraq or visiting wounded Marines at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I am honored to share the love of God in places where other ministers or missionaries cannot go," he explains. "The opportunities to provide ministry are infinite."
Baker was recently promoted to this position, after a long history of involvement both in the military and in ministry. He began his military training at the age of 18 at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with merit and then embarking upon his first sea tour. After earning his MDiv from Fuller in 1987, Baker was ordained by the Reformed Church in America and recalled to active duty as a Navy chaplain. Since that time he has ministered extensively on the field, including as a ship's chaplain to Marines during the first Gulf War, as well as serving in various positions to train and oversee other chaplains.
For Baker, the opportunity to minister to our nation's troops represents the interweaving of scriptural principles with the demands of life on the front lines. In particular, the Marine Corps motto--"Semper Fidelis," meaning "Always Faithful"--is rich with potential parallels. The Marines often abbreviate this motto to "Semper Fi," and use it whenever the opportunity arises. "Of course," says Baker, "the motto offers me wonderful cannon fodder for extemporaneous sermons to Marines regarding God's continued and permanent faithfulness to his children."
Baker recounts a memorable experience that happened during a particularly difficult juncture during the first Gulf War, while he was living in a small tent next to an airstrip in the middle of the desert in the company of 4,500 Marines. "'Semper Fi!' was a message I needed to hear," he explains. "The jet noise and frequent scud alerts surrounding me only compounded my question as to why all of this was happening."
"The Marines had provided me a three-by five-foot marker board for outlining my sermons," Baker continues, "and I mounted this board inside my tent. As I considered my discouragement and sought remedy from God, the word came to me--'clarify.' Maybe God had me in the desert to clarify my purpose and life's vision. He wanted my aspirations distilled down to serving him willingly with a whole heart. So, I wrote 'clarify' at the top of this blank white board."
After further prayer, Baker wrote the word "purify" on the board, immediately below "clarify." "I thought to myself that God frequently takes his people away from all the distractions in order to purify them for his purposes," he says.
Finally, remembering the example of early monks who lived isolated lives in the desert in order to mortify their flesh and increase their faith, Baker added the word "mortify" to his list. "In the desert," Baker says, "far from home and family and comfort, I saw I had become a reluctant follower of their early path."
Before the ink dried, Baker heard the approach of aircraft, and ran to the flight line in order to greet the returning pilots. "My fog lifted as I experienced firsthand the pilots' relief at successfully and safely completing their mission, as I witnessed the esprit-de-corps of the ground crew as they quickly turned around the aircraft for another take-off," he says. "My discouragement was washed away as I found myself smiling at the optimism of those Marines. I was encouraged. I had renewed vision. I had a sense of purpose here in the desert. I had hope."
When Baker returned to his tent, he noticed a Marine had dropped by while he was away and left him a message. To the three words on his board, the Marine had added a fourth: Clarify, Purify, Mortify, Semper Fi. "God has his purposes, even in the desert," Baker reflects. "God, who is always faithful, reminded me to be faithful as their chaplain, serving God's purposes." It is God's faithfulness that undergirds Baker's commitment to military chaplaincy and enables him to say, "My greatest joy is serving God's people who wear our nation's uniform."