I’m taking a break in the photo scanning exercise for a more substantial reminiscence.
Military service outside of the US takes people out of their comfort zone. I’ve often noted how getting people away from their familiar settings tends to strip away a lot of religious pretense. Granted, there was plenty of effort to find communities of folks with similar religious habits, and the Charismatics were particularly noted for this. However, most of them did this stuff on the side, and still participated in the wider chapel community a great deal. There were simply no specialty groups large enough to provide a full range of activities for the most part. People of genuine faith were driven to make the most of the situation, while those of weaker faith found it too easy to avoid.
It worked best when the chapel leadership didn’t try to rally strong support for any one brand of religious expression. I’ve seen a strong sectarian chaplain move in and marginalize everyone else. There was no place left for the more vivid fellowship, and it fell apart. I’ve also seen a sectarian chaplain realize what a mistake he was making and change course to grant a more relaxed administration of religious activities, allowing ministry among the members to flourish.
As I look back on that experience from where I stand now, two things catch my attention.
First, there is an acute polarization between women’s groups. There were women in uniform and there were military dependents. Female troops could break into the latter group, but it didn’t happen that often. In most military communities overseas, the female population was predominately spouses of men in uniform. These women were more likely to be busy in chapel than their men. If you think about it, you would hardly be surprised at what kind of society this turned out to be in most cases. It was dominated by the semi-feminist evangelical culture you see here in the US, simply because the US military is dominated by that same middle-class evangelical population in the first place. This is the fellowship that women in uniform had to join, or go it alone.
It could get pretty rigid, at times. With so much time on their hands in a foreign atmosphere, you can be sure they organized very actively, seeking to maintain what they regarded as holiness and stability. I’ve overheard many wives who really needed something else complaining that the system was worse for them than it was for their husbands with military bureaucracy. There seemed to be an unofficial shadow hierarchy and bureaucracy of its own under the label “Protestant Women of the Chapel” (PWOC) throughout Europe, at least. While the faces and names rotated in and out, the system remained generally intact and unyielding to any pressure to include the outliers in any meaningful way.
Note: My wife has no significant pleasant memories of her time dealing with the PWOC in our community. She told me it wasn’t a lot of exploring genuine faith, but a lot of religious activity. Also, please note that there were similar organizations for Catholics and other liturgical brands of Christian religion, but those were generally tiny in number. In terms of activities, the Protestant groups were about the only game in town.
Second, men of faith were terribly hungry for an atmosphere where they could open up and just be themselves. As you might expect, these two were related. Most of the men in the matching organization — Protestant Men of the Chapel (PMOC) — had less time to devote to the meetings and stuff. However, when they did get together, I frequently overheard men revealing sorrows over the lack of opportunity for sharing their burdens. They wanted to grow in faith, but felt stymied by the larger presence of men who refused to delve into such things.
In particular, a few insightful guys noticed that men in uniform who were driven by faith came to these communities far from home with a genuine expectation and hope that they wouldn’t have to wade through so much purely cultural Christianity. Only those truly driven by faith would invest the time in chapel activities with so little free time in the first place. They came hoping that they could get away from the empty religious experience so common with civilian churches back in the US.
Sometimes they succeeded, simply because they were joined by others who had sufficient rank and influence to push aside hindrances. Too often, those moments of openness with men of like faith were lost because of the regimentation reflex of organizing stuff. But this was not something they sought consciously; it was just a reflex built into the chapel system itself. This was the opposite of how the women consciously created an atmosphere to intentionally straight-jacket women who didn’t conform. The men did have their breakthroughs now and then, while the women seemed to never get a break.
In other words, I had more chances for growing in faith than my wife did while we lived in Europe. Oddly, for someone of nominal rank (just a Sergeant E-5), I had way more influence from the unofficial faith angle than many officers. In religion, I was “promoted” over many men who outranked me in uniform. My wife had no desire to lead in the first place, but she also had no wish to be roped into supporting something that she knew instinctively was not biblical. I found it frankly disturbing that her avid support for her husband’s ministry marked her as an oddball. Too many of the leading ladies in PWOC were not really behind their men.
Worse, I heard from men stationed all over Europe that it was the same in their communities.