When people ask me about the difference between a chaplain and other clergy members, I tell them that, in theory, a chaplain has few boundaries for ministry. We go anywhere and everywhere.
In 1998, I was serving as an Air Force chaplain in Turkey when a phone call tested my theory. The call came from Lt. Col. Phillips, our deputy commander at the Izmir Air Station.
“Chaplain, how would you like to go to prison today?”
“Pardon me, Sir?”
Phillips laughed his “gotcha laugh” I’d often heard during the off-duty hours he’d spent teaching me scuba. Then, as if clearing his diving mask of seawater, he emptied his voice of mirth to explain that a Security Force member (military policeman) was being detained in the infamous Bucca Prison.
“I need you to accompany the lawyer and me to the prison to check on the sergeant’s welfare.”
I drew a troubled breath, not knowing if that was a boundary I could cross.
“What’s the charge?”
“The Turkish Insult Law,” Phillips said.
The law was a catch-all for anything our hosts deemed offensive. It was itself an insult to the American concept of free speech as it imposed a one- to- three-year prison sentence on anyone who disgraced the memory of Mustafa Atatürk, Turkey’s version of George Washington.
The charge dumbfounded me because our Security Forces were adept at avoiding the “crime.”
Phillips continued with an explanation that made the cop a likely nominee for the Darwin Award. Apparently, our sergeant emptied both his stomach and his bladder of alcohol byproducts on Atatürk’s statue in the town center.
While Turkey is bursting with these sculptured figures, the Izmir statue enjoys particular prominence. It is a well-guarded portrayal of Atatürk pointing directly to the Aegean Sea where, on Sept. 9, 1922, he sent the fleeing Greek invaders skedaddling onto their retreating warships.
I agreed to meet Phillips at his office, where we joined the lawyer for a cab to the nearby prison. Once inside, we found a contrite cop who remembered very little of his escapades. He was, however, sweating his recollection of “Midnight Express,” the 1978 movie depicting the horrors of Turkish prisons. The movie follows American college student Billy Hayes, who served four years for drug-smuggling before he finally swam across the Maritsa River to freedom.
Our sergeant didn’t look like he was in any condition to swim. He looked even worse as the lawyer explained that Turkey didn’t have the usual legal agreement that allowed our service members to be released into military custody.
The best chance the cop had at freedom was a heartfelt apology and a promise to return for trial. By the next day, the sergeant gave both in exchange for his release.
Later, when I asked Phillips about the scheduled trial, he grinned.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Our boy’s on a plane stateside.” I must have looked a bit shocked at the ruse, so Phillips took his naive chaplain aside for a teachable moment.
Apparently, our command had a tacit understanding with local police that when one of our service members was arrested, they could be tried in absentia, but never return for sentencing. It was the Turkish equivalent of the American judge who dismisses the juvenile offender with the threat, “If I ever see you again, I’ll lock you up and throw away the key!”
At the end of the day, we all learned our boundaries. The cop learned that excessive alcohol destroys healthy boundaries. Col. Phillips learned that a good ruse could blur boundaries. And I learned, I would never make a good prison chaplain.