CBF-endorsed chaplains provide spiritual care to Marines at Camp Pendleton
Jeff Ross, right, prays at a retirement ceremony for a Marine at Camp Pendleton. Patricia Heys photo
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – When the USS Cole was attacked in 2000, Sunny Mitchell immediately called home.
“I knew some of the sailors on the Cole, and I wanted to be there with them and the families who were grieving,” said Mitchell, a native of Newport News, Va. “I grew up around military bases, so I quickly identified with the families. That event helped me realize my calling to ministry.”
At the time, Mitchell was a student at the McAfee School of Theology, a Fellowship partner. Now, she serves as a Navy chaplain, ministering to approximately 2,000 Marines and their families.
Mitchell is one of more than 580 chaplains and pastoral counselors endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. These spiritual caregivers provide pastoral care in specialized settings – including hospitals, prisons and corporations.
“The freedom and the validation that comes with being endorsed by CBF allows me to be the presence of Christ in my own way,” Mitchell said. “We all have unique gifts, and Christ uses each one of us. I love the fact that we all minister in different settings, but Christ is at the center of our organization.”
Mitchell and Navy chaplain Jeff Ross, who is also endorsed by CBF, are both stationed at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California – and coincidentally are both members of Northeast Baptist Church in Atlanta, a Fellowship partner. Mitchell and Ross work with different Marine regiments, but both will be deploying with their respective units later this year.
“There should never be a chaplain that supports war,” said Ross, a native of Atlanta. “I pray every day for a world where there is no war, but I’m also a realist and know that wars are going to happen. It’s not my place to judge the war, but it’s my place to support the people who are there. I get to be in relationship with people in times of crisis and in situations where no other minister has the ability to reach these individuals if for no other reason than my willingness to be present.”
Navy chaplains, who serve not only the Navy but also Marines and Coast Guard, have a wide range of responsibilities. Mitchell and Ross provide counseling on topics such as finances and marriage, conduct workshops on suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress disorder and coordinate activities with churches and community organizations. They also lead worship, wedding and funeral services. In addition, military chaplains provide a moral and ethical voice to commanding officers.
On a military base, spiritual care occurs in a variety of places – from the rifle range to martial arts training to the mess hall. One morning, in order to keep up with a Marine on a 10-mile run, Ross rode a bike alongside the Marine as he talked about a painful personal relationship.
“What I try to do is reflect Christ,” Ross said. “The great thing about being a chaplain is that I get to go places and minister to people when and where no one else is able to. I get to talk to Marines who won’t talk to anyone else on the planet at times when they desperately need to talk to somebody. I have opportunities for ministry that wouldn’t happen any other way.”
As Navy chaplains, Mitchell and Ross minister to Marines from all denominations and faiths – and those who have lost their faith. Ross said on his first visit to one Marine base, an officer said to him, “I hate God and religion, but I need you to do two things for me. I need you to pray for my Marines and take care of them.”
“Christ’s example as the suffering servant is one that has always resonated with me, and does so especially now as a chaplain,” Mitchell said. “Christ went to the people who were suffering and taught and healed them – he did it where they were. He came to them as a fellow human and fellow sufferer. I go to Marines wearing the same uniform, working in the same places and experiencing much of what they experience, and I hope they see Christ’s love through me.”
CBF is a fellowship of Baptist Christians and churches who share a passion for the Great Commission and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.