Chaplain Chris Molnar of the California National Guard spent the last year in prison and he’s learned a thing or two.
No, he wasn’t an inmate. He was the senior chaplain for the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo Bay, a team of civilians and military members providing custodial care for about 500 detainees of the Global War on Terrorism.
From March 2005 through April 2006, Molnar managed a team of five chaplains, a Muslim Advisor, and five chaplain assistants who were responsible for providing spiritual care to the staff and prisoners.
Last month I met up with Molnar in his pastor’s office at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Luis Obispo, California, where he has served for 13 years.
Within a few moments of meeting him, he pulled out a Muslim prayer rug from his closet which may cause some to wonder if he’d become a Christian/Muslim hybrid.
Later in a phone interview, Molnar explained to me that the rug had come to symbolize the simplicity and physicality of Muslim worship, like the personal washing and the kneeling for prayer at certain hours.
Molnar feels that this simplicity of worship is something to be emulated in Christian worship. “So often, in our quest to worship in a place with the best music,” Molnar says that “it becomes more about how you feel. People stroll into church looking for their special pew, place their offering in the basket, and expect this is what they deserve.”
Concerned that Christians are becoming only Sunday believers or “baptized secularists,” Molnar highlights to his own Lutheran congregation the absence of kneelers in the church sanctuary. “We used to physically kneel when we prayed, but not anymore.”
“Muslims prostrate themselves before God,” he explained admiringly. “It might be helpful for Christians to occasionally do the same.” Then sounding like the “Evangelical” in his church name, Molnar noted that prostrate is the Christian’s “true standing before Christ. We deserve nothing. Yet through what Jesus did for us on the cross, prostrating should be an appropriate response.”
“If I were to ask my congregants to do that, I’d get complaints,” he added.
Molnar says his inspiration came through watching his Muslim translators and linguists worship. “They seemed to me to be devout and it seemed to help sustain many of them. I was impressed by their willingness to practice that and how it seemed to help them in the separation from their families.”
Molnar says he gets a lot of “reaction” in what might be misinterpreted as his defense of fundamentalist Islam. “I’m not denying that there are fundamentalists who are agitating and encouraging other Muslims, even against the teachings of the Koran, to attempt suicide and harm women and children. I don’t mean to play that down.”
“I’m merely trying to point out that these are human beings, not trying to demonize them. Because at some point we’re going to have to come to terms with them if we are going to have peace.”
While the graying chaplain isn’t yet praying five times a day as his Muslim counterparts, he practices what he now preaches. “I’ve gone back to praying while kneeling and being aware that the position of my body may well affect the position of my heart.”