I began my Air Force chaplain’s career at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, California. I served there for three years as a reservist being mentored by five active duty chaplains.
The active duty chaplains sat inside well-apportioned offices while the biggest office was occupied by the senior chaplain – we all called him Father Z. As a reservist, I worked only a few days each month, so the smallest office belonged to me. My “office” was a cubicle of a few chairs surrounded by five-foot fabric partitions and was positioned under the watchful of eye of Father Z’s office.
One day, Father Z assigned me to give premarital counseling sessions to a young couple. The potential groom was a timid airman from the military personnel section. His fiancée was a 19-year-old civilian, still unsure of what military life had in store for her.
At the appointed hour, our chapel receptionist led the couple past Chaplain Z’s closed door and into my cubicle. The couple began the interview with a nervous edge, answering questions in a varied volume of two-syllable yes-sirs and no-sirs. However, as they started sharing their heart story, they relaxed into easy smiles and comfortable chuckles.
Then, just as I started to ask the couple how they deal with anger in their relationship, we heard a loud crash in the office across from my cubicle. Father Z’s office door flew open and the air exploded with expletives.
Instinctively we ducked our heads as if to shield ourselves from the barrage of blasphemy. The couple remained in their seats, but like a soldier in a World War I trench, I peeked over the partition to find our profane sniper.
When I returned my attention to the couple, the wide-eyed woman asked in whispered tones, “Doesn’t that man know he’s in a chapel?”
“Oh, I’m afraid he knows,” I said.
“Why?” the airman asked. “Who is he?”
“That’s Father Z and I suppose he just got mad enough to make a preacher cuss,” I said, deadpanning an old expression.
“He’s really a nice guy,” I added, which was my way of telling the shocked couple what the Wizard of Oz said about himself – “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” or in this case behind our cubicle partition.
The incident highlights a question about integrity that I’ve often asked my own parishioners over the years – “Who are you when no one is watching? Who are you when it doesn’t seem as though it matters?”
The answers to these questions will determine your integrity. In other words, integrity can be measured as how close you are to being the same person when no one is watching as you are when everyone is watching. Integrity means you remain the same person no matter who benefits.
Honestly, Fr. Z could be one of the kindest men you’d want to know. He was respectful, thoughtful, and compassionate. Unfortunately, his outburst put up a smoke screen that hid his goodness from the impressionable couple.
I never did get a bigger office at Mather, but my time there did give me a bigger sense of a compelling fact – being an angry person in private only means that we are only rehearsing the anger that will eventually take center stage in our public lives.