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In Afghanistan, UUs light chalice in new congregation

The Kandahar Crossing UU Fellowship is a peaceful refuge in a war zone.
By Donald E. Skinner
2.18.13

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Members of the Kandahar Crossing UU Fellowship in Afghanistan gather for worship. (Army Sgt. Eric Skoog)

In many respects the Unitarian Universalist congregation that gathers for worship each week in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is no different from any other UU congregation. Participants gather around a chalice to hear readings and a homily. There is sharing of joys and sorrows. There are hymns from Singing the Living Tradition. Afterward there is coffee.

And then there are the differences. Inside the door there’s a rack for military rifles. Many of the congregants carry sidearms. The dress code is camouflage for the most part. There is also a point in the service when the names of people who have died in the war that week are spoken. And often the moment of silent meditation is interrupted by the sounds of explosions that shake the building.

The Kandahar Crossing UU Fellowship, on the huge Kandahar Airfield military base—a city of some 25,000 people—is led by the Rev. Chris Antal and supported by Chaplain’s Assistant Anthony “Tony” Taylor. They arrived in Afghanistan in September. In addition to their responsibilities in ministering to an Army National Guard unit from New York State, they quickly established a weekly UU worship service—the first and only one in Afghanistan.

“The first week it was me and Tony,” said Antal. “Then a person from our unit came. We put up flyers around the base and got more people coming in the door. By December we had our first membership ceremony.”

The fellowship has 10 members and a half-dozen friends. Since the fellowship is not a recognized congregation, members who join also join the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which Antal serves as a community minister. The eight founding members include Army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Saphir and Bob LaValle, a former Marine officer who is now a military contractor. Antal said one of the best parts of the fellowship is watching people who have been UU discover it. “When they come through the door for the first time they sometimes look like children who have found their lost parents,” he said. About half the congregants who had never attended a UU congregation before found the fellowship through a Saturday morning Zen meditation class that Antal offers.

LaValle, who serves as worship associate for the congregation, said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that flyer with a chalice on it! Walking into that service was like walking into my home after a long absence.” He noted that one can hear “awful stuff” on a military base. “That’s why coming into that beloved community where my values are celebrated has meant the world to me. It’s also wonderful to be with folks who are grappling with dual loyalties to church and country. Ours is a nuanced patriotism that can be difficult to explain to the ‘love it or leave it’ crowd.”

He said he became a UU at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Mass. in 1996 and has also attended All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C. He hopes to become a minister. “My experience here has confirmed for me that this is what I want to do.”

Saphir discovered the fellowship through a flyer. The night before, comedian Stephen Colbert had made a humorous reference to Unitarian Universalism on his TV show, he noted. “I remember laughing and thinking how much I missed the UU community,” Saphir said.

Saphir grew up a UU, starting with the religious education program at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, where his father, John Saphir, is now president. Marc Saphir is president of the Kandahar congregation as well. “I’m just carrying on Dad’s tradition of service,” Marc said.

He added, “It’s been amazing to find a fellowship here that’s actually led by a UU chaplain and where I can connect with other UUs. It gives me a familiar community to exercise our shared values in a tough place. It also is a place of fellowship and provides me a peaceful refuge. Finally, it’s comforting to know that there are UU chaplains and UU communities in our overseas military who represent me and my beliefs.”

When fellowship members sing out during services they have the benefit of a keyboard and a drum set. Antal said some of his colleagues in ministry in the Danbury, Conn., area sent the drums to him. During services he wears a camouflage stole made by quilters at the UU Church of Reading, Mass.

Lorraine Dennis, a member of the Reading congregation, and executive director of the UUA’s Church of the Larger Fellowship, said, “The ladies were very excited about making the stole. They sewed it in a weekend and I got it in the mail in time to get it to Chris just before Christmas Eve. It was a labor of love.” The Kandahar fellowship receives materials regularly from CLF.

If there’s any place where social justice is needed, it’s a war zone, and the fellowship is deeply engaged in that aspect of congregational life. Just as other congregations are working on the current UUA Congregational Study/Action Issue (CSAI), Immigration as a Moral Issue, the Kandahar fellowship has its own immigration focus. It is rallying support for Afghan interpreters who serve the military and whose lives will be in danger when the military pulls out in 2014.

“We have submitted recommendations for revisions to the CSAI,” said Antal. He noted that thousands of interpreters have applied for visas, but only around 50 were approved in the past year. “The lives of many who served honorably are at risk as we draw down. We’re trying to engage UU congregations stateside to write letters to their members of Congress.”

The Rev. Sam Trumbore at the First UU Society of Albany, N.Y., where Antal was ordained, has posted several articles on the “Afghan Allies” issue. Included is an interview Antal did with “Tariq,” an interpreter he met through a member of the congregation. A sample letter that many congregations are using to reach out to public officials is also on the site.

In recognition of Tariq’s six years of dedicated service to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, at great personal risk, the Kandahar fellowship presented Tariq with a “Courageous Love” award Feb. 10, as part of the Thirty Days of Love campaign of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love program. The fellowship is supporting Tariq through his visa and resettlement process.

He said other congregations can support the fellowship by becoming educated on this issue, writing letters and sermons, and adopting an “Afghan Ally” and helping them in the resettlement process. People can contact Antal directly at chrisantal@yahoo.com. The UU Congregation of the Catskills in Kingston, N.Y., wrote and sent 75 letters to their members of Congress just after Christmas, said the Rev. Dawn Sangrey, urging support for the Afghan Allies.

Antal said the fellowship is honored to serve another function—providing a welcoming place for LGBT people and a place where a diversity of viewpoints can be presented. “One Sunday we gave the pulpit to the first Buddhist chaplain in the Army, Thomas Dyer. He was thrilled.”

Dyer said later by email it was the first time he had been asked to speak in the pulpit of another Army chaplain. He also participated in the Zen meditation group started by Antal. Dyer said, “It was incredible to be invited to participate in a Zen meditation practice that I did not start and it was equally amazing to find the meditation practice rich with authentic Buddhist teaching. I was delighted to receive such a warm welcome.”

Army First Lieutenant Lyndsey Lyons was unaware of Unitarian Universalism until she saw a flyer outside her living quarters. She said that after attending a service she was immediately drawn to it, not only because she is an out-serving LGBT member of the military, but as a “breath of fresh air” to the “ego and arrogance” that she said are often found in the military.

She added, “It has been a blessing to find an accepting spiritual gathering in the military. This congregation reminds me that I am never alone on my journey.”


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