Saturday, 26 March 2011

Camberley Vicar Deploys to Afghanistan

Padre Mark Chester, on pre-deployment training Padre Mark Chester (right) in Cyprus on pre-deployment training

“Part of my role will be to come alongside soldiers and help them think through what life’s about” – Mark Chester

Map of Afghanistan Rev Mark Chester, Vicar of St Paul’s in Camberley, deploys to Afghanistan in April to spend 3 months ministering to the troops, as a unit Padre. He will be directly responsible for the pastoral care of around 500 commandos, and part of a team of 10 Padres in 3 Commando Brigade. This will involve a lot of moving around Helmund by land or air, as he visits the soldiers of the Royal Artillery in Camp Bastion and forward patrol bases.

Click to listen to Mark's interview Listen to an interview with Mark, as he prepared for his deployment

His duties will include caring for the wounded, church services, ministering to any casualties and helping the troops as they think about their lives,  away from their families, in a stressful and demanding environment. Mark says: “I will also be involved in helping people come to terms with things in life which they haven’t encountered before. Very often you find yourself in new situations looking at life a completely different way, which raises all sorts of questions. Part of my role will be to come alongside soldiers and help them think through what life’s about”. Mark has an important role to play providing spiritual care. As the General The Right Honourable, Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC, former Chief of the General Staff, at his recent talk on The moral dimension of soldiering at St Paul’s said: “even the toughest of men, when the chips are down, and the reality of life and death confronts, are reaching out into the spiritual dimension” .

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Tim 4 vs 7

Rev Mark Chester, St Paul's Camberley

St Paul's is well associated with the military, being quite close to Sandhurst, and traditionally where many officers lived. I asked Mark if there are any similarities between ministering to St Paul’s, and ministering to soldiers. Mark said: “We are all people who have needs, strengths and opportunities. We are all here for a purpose, and God wants us to make the most of the gifts he’s given us to make a difference in the world”.

Padres are non-combatants, and do not carry guns. I asked Mark how he felt about that, and he said: “what it’s saying to soldiers and civilians is there’s something else going on here which is not solved at the point of a gun. What we’re about is winning the hearts and minds of the people, so we can engage and help them make Afghanistan a better place. Where the rubber hits the road is in forming good relationships”.

Military padres have been described as the ‘rarest of the rare’. Throughout history they have been decorated for bravery in action – four have been awarded Britain’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross, and some 400 have received the Military Cross. They go out alongside soldiers unarmed. They face the heat, the dust and the dangers relying on comradeship, faith and courage to keep them going*.

Mark, not normally known for his use of modern technology, has a trick up his sleeve to help him perform services whilst out in theatre. He will be playing worship music during the services using his iPod. He said “we will automatically have splendid musical accompaniment even though there might not be a full stringed orchestra”. I’m not sure we will get him tweeting, but the iPod is a step in the right direction!

Rev Sue Stephens will be standing in for Mark as Vicar of St Paul’s whilst he is away.  

* Reproduced with the kind permission of the AFCU from an article in Contact magazine, “Let us Pray”.