INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — Social distance does not mean social isolation: this is the message the 39th Air Base Wing chapel team is sending to U.S. personnel at Incirlik during the COVID-19 crisis.
Since facilities across the installation shut their doors and transitioned to minimum manning and members everywhere were ordered to maintain physical distance from each other, the chapel team has continued its outreach to the community through technological means.
“Out of necessity and to live out our purpose, we keep the message the same while only changing the methods,” said Capt. Samuel McClellan, a 39th ABW chaplain. “We like to call it Operation COVID-CONNECT.”
The chaplain described how his team adjusted their operations: the chapel moved their worship into the virtual realm by live-streaming and pre-recording services. Only a few congregants and parishioners are present each week to set up and conduct the service in-person.
Quick-response codes have also been created to guide worshippers to the online channel where services are broadcasted. These QR codes were attached to care packages that chaplains and their Religious Support Airmen distributed to various units across the installation.
“We have delivered boxes of mac and cheese and armbands for phones with our information on it,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Bravard, the chapel’s non-commissioned officer in charge of resource management. “The armbands are helpful for people as they are spending more time outside, and the mac and cheese is because people are spending more time at home.”
Besides supporting religious needs, the chapel also conducts unit visitations throughout the base. In the U.S. military, chaplains are responsible for supporting the morale of all personnel regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. They accomplish this while respecting the personal beliefs of the people they reach out to.
McClellan said the chapel remains open for walk-in sessions from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. After duty hours, people seeking the chapel’s help would call the chapel on-call phone, command post or Base Defense Operations Center, he added.
In addition to personnel currently present at Incirlik, the chapel has members who are “stuck out.” These are members who were temporarily in the U.S. when the Department of Defense declared the stop-movement order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
McClellan mentioned that these teammates found innovative ways to continue their ministry to the Airmen here, mentioning a fellow chaplain who conducts his counseling sessions through video chat.
“Chaplain Guerrero has been teleworking through virtual counseling,” McClellan explained. “We give him credit for working on some of our technical aspects like the development of our Spiritual Needs Assessment and QR codes. He has a lot of relationships here and people are reaching out to him quite a bit through social media.”
McClellan noted that his team’s mission is not just simply about religious services, visiting people and delivering care packages—it is about promoting the spiritual well-being of the community and helping people find strength to press on through adversity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown peoples’ lives in disarray, therefore the chapel team is reaching out to help people find peace in the midst of chaos and hope in the midst of confusion.
McClellan pointed out a bright spot amidst the turmoil this pandemic has caused: people’s hearts and minds are being brought closer together even though physically, they are apart.
“Never before have we been so close together as a world than right now as we fight together combatting this virus,” he said while praying during a recorded worship service.
The chaplain also encouraged people not to be overcome by fear, saying humankind has faced innumerable challenges before and survived. It is during times of adversity when the spirit of humanity shines brightest, he added.
“Bigger than the viral impact or economic impact of this crisis is the fear, which I think is more contagious—fear of death and the unknown,” said McClellan. “However, these are refining moments that help to develop our character. General Patton said that ‘pressure makes diamonds,’ and the Holy Bible says that ‘fire refines our faith.’
“When fear creeps in, stick to the facts, because facts are your friends,” he continued. “When the knowledge of facts increases, fear tied to speculation decreases.”
The chaplain called on members of the community to take care of each other in this challenging period, saying the advent of technology has made it possible for people to follow healthcare precautions while reaching out to each other.
In the end, human beings are responsible for their behavior no matter what the circumstances are, and the current crisis presents people with opportunities to bring out the best in themselves, McClellan adamantly stated. He praised the efforts of the doctors, physicians, nurses, first responders, law enforcement and even the “unsung heroes” such as grocery store employees and transportation workers.
“This is our moment to shine, because every generation gets an opportunity to be the greatest generation,” McClellan said. “Our character and our legacy need to be greater than the pandemic. We will make it through, and this is going to prepare us for the next generation’s battle against the next big thing. God always has a way of sovereignly preparing us to be ready for the next battle.”