Service in refugee camp touches chaplain's heart

One LDS chaplain's involvement in a camp for Haitian refugees left him counting his blessings and keenly aware of the nature of true service.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Philip G. McLemore recently spent more than three months on duty at one of the refugee camps set up on the outskirts of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He said it was a historic occasion to be one of many military chaplains engaged for the first time in extensive service among foreign civilians.The traditional role of active-duty military chaplains is to primarily serve active-duty military personnel and their families.

The refugee camps were set up by the U.S. government to deal with massive waves of refugees trying to make their way to the United States.

Chaplain McLemore, stationed at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nev., was assigned a tour of duty at one of the Haitian camps on Sept. 6. He returned home on Dec. 12.

During that time he served men, women and children who had been picked up at sea and had virtually nothing. They were afflicted by hunger, disease and other hardships in their meager circumstances. There were more than 14,000 Haitians divided into camps of between 2,000-3,000. Chaplain McLemore spent his time with "Camp five" of six.

"When I looked at the blessings and opportunities I have while seeing the poverty and struggles and uncertainty these people faced, I was so grateful," the LDS chaplain said during a Church News interview. "That made me want to help their lives to be a little better and I wanted them to know that someone cared."

Nevertheless, trying to serve so many people with such inadequate resources was hard. There was a time of discouragement, and Chaplain McLemore said he came to an important understanding at that point.

He had been serving in the camp for about 40 days - from morning until into the late night, six days a week - when some Haitian religious leaders asked him when he was going to do something for their people.

Stunned, he returned to his quarters wondering if he could go on when his service wasn't even recognized, let alone appreciated.

He said that as he sat on his cot, he was spiritually impressed with a strong message: "Every act of Christian service matters whether it's understood or not, or whether it's appreciated or not."

He said: "That perspective was so encouraging to me. It caused me to refocus and return cheerfully to long hours of service."

As senior camp chaplain, Brother McLemore at times supervised a team of four chaplains, while at other times he served alone or with one other chaplain.

His basic role, shared by other chaplains, was to provide religious services and counseling, help resolve disputes, meet personal needs of the refugees and help build positive relations between the refugees and military police who supervised the camp. The chaplains also assisted in family reunification since so many had been split up before or during the exodus from their country.

Weekly religious activities included 11 worship services, seven prayer meetings, four Bible study classes and Sunday School. The activities drew a total attendance of 2,700 each week in Chaplain McLemore's camp. He and other chaplains also involved hundreds of Haitians - including those not interested in the religious program - in choirs, and art and dance classes. "I actually taught some line dancing," Chaplain McLemore recalled.

There were distinct challenges for the chaplains.

"We would spend many hours each day going from tent to tent making sure we were aware of any medical needs or problems, any disharmony, and to make sure children were taken care of properly and there was no abuse."

Another challenge for Chaplain McLemore was the language barrier. All communication, including church services, was done through a translator.

When Brother McLemore and the other chaplains returned to their military camp at the end of a long day, they often had to spend time in their traditional role - counseling military personnel.

One experience was particularly poignant for Brother McLemore. A Haitian man in his camp had a brother who had become ill and was taken to a hospital in the United States. The man hadn't heard from his brother in more than a month and asked Chaplain McLemore for help in contacting his brother.

Chaplain McLemore acted on the request immediately and found that neither the Red Cross nor the hospital on the base had any record of his whereabouts.

The next day, a chaplain at a neighboring camp informed Brother McLemore that he was rushing to conduct a funeral service and burial for a Haitian who reportedly had no family members. When Chaplain McLemore learned the name of the deceased man, he recognized it as the name of the brother he was looking for.

He had only 10 minutes before the transportation left for the cemetery to locate the man in camp and inform him that his brother had died and was about to be buried. "It was miracle that I located him in the midst of 3,000 people," the LDS chaplain said.

"From that time on, every day that man would come up to me and thank me and hug me," Brother McLemore said. "To have someone interested and caring at a time like that meant a lot to him."

By the end of his tour of duty, Chaplain McLemore had built strong friendships among the refugees. He also admired the faith and determination they showed in difficult situations including a tropical storm that damaged many areas of the camp. Most of the refugees have now been returned to Haiti.

"I enjoyed trying in some way to meet the needs and alleviate the suffering of people who had been severly persecuted in their own country and were coming from horrendous economic situations," Brother McLemore concluded. "There were a lot of sad stories. To help them and strengthen their faith, even though it was extremely taxing, was satisfying."

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