Friday, 6 May 2011

Easter in Helmand

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“An Easter service with the Commando Gunners in Helmand”

Reverend Mark Chester is the Vicar of St Paul’s Camberley who has been mobilised as a Territorial Army Chaplain to serve with 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. This is his account of how he spent Easter this year.

Easter has been different for me this year. I suppose Easter is always different as the great truths of hope and eternal life through the resurrected Jesus seem subtly changed as we pass though various stages of life and experience. But Easter has really been different for me this year.

Ten days before Easter Day, I arrived in Helmand, Afghanistan as Padre to the Royal Artillery who are serving throughout the province as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). After the normal intensive induction course bringing me up to date with the latest campaign developments, I found time to be part of the small congregation celebrating Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in the tent which acts as one of the chapels in the base – celebrations not dissimilar to those taking place in many churches in the UK.

But Easter Saturday was different. The day on which we recall Christ’s descent to the world of the dead and ‘the harrowing of hell’; the day which for the first disciples was arguably the blackest in their lives, was marked at Camp Bastion by a vigil for a soldier killed in action. As the day drew to a close, some 3,000 soldiers stood in silence to remember Captain Lisa Head a bomb disposal officer fatally wounded whilst clearing roadside bombs. A young life caught in an act of violence ending in the apparent finality of death echoing something of the experience of Jesus. This was my first, and I would like to think, last vigil of my time in Helmand. A profoundly moving experience upon which I continue to reflect.

Easter Sunday was a new day and as the temperature climbed into the high 30s I was taken by armoured vehicle to a forward base. We passed through villages, deprived even by Afghan standards, which apart from the arrival of the motor car have probably changed little in the last 2,000 years. Easter was celebrated by word, sacrament and some ragged hymn singing, literally on a hill outside a city wall. This particular hill was surrounded by barbed wire and other fortifications enclosing an area about 200 x 200 metres where a contingent of gunners and a larger number of their Afghan Army colleagues would spend six months or more of their lives. We affirmed the truth that no matter how difficult the circumstances, how black the darkness and how deep the failure, there is always the hope of new life and new beginnings in the resurrection to eternal life of Christ Jesus.

In the Church of England, Easter Monday is traditionally a time for rest and recuperation – not so in Helmand. A visit to get to know the local Afghan troops included an opportunity to talk, though an interpreter, with a local Mullah. He was unfailingly polite and charming, and quickly initiated a robust denial of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ Jesus. At the close of a tiring and educative hour long exchange, I considered afresh what it might have been like the disciples in that first Easter week. Some had met the risen Jesus and believed. Others had not and were perhaps just as fervent as the Mullah in their denial of the resurrection – a position changed when they too encountered their risen Lord.

I am at the beginning of my tour of duty. Impressions are fresh and vivid. Reflections are as yet immature. I can only guess at what the next few months have in store. As I minister and pray for the spiritual and physical safety of the soldiers committed to my care, I remain confident in the Easter hope that nothing will be able to separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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“Padre Mark travels to church on Easter Sunday”