A World-Class Kind of Love

By Countess Cooper ’23 S.T.M.

Military chaplaincy has been a calling and gift of divine proportions for me. For nearly 14 years now, God has been shaping and growing my perspective through this vocation, helping me in my servant leadership attitude, and deepening my understanding of the Christian value of love.[1]  

It was the perfect calling for me. Military chaplaincy has offered a wider platform to express my combination of identities and histories than a traditional pulpit ministry in a local church could. Conservative Christians leaders today rarely acknowledge gay identities, and when they do, it is often in a less-than-positive way. On the other hand, churches that are more progressive in social action may affirm LGBTQIA+ persons, but very often these churches remain segregated along racial lines. It is still a rarity to find Christian churches today that celebrate U.S. history, Black history, women’s history, and gay history too, all with fervor.

God gives us life. I want to use mine to help other people find purpose and value in theirs.

As a military chaplain, I honor all these and more: my job is to promote dignity and respect for all cross-cultural observances and awareness events as established by federal law, bill, or resolution of Congress. The array of themes is as vast, complex, and innovative as the nation itself: civil rights, religious diversity, harassment prevention, sexual assault awareness prevention, suicide prevention, Pride Month, Woman’s Equality Day, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Ramadan, Christmas, Wicca Yule, Flag Day, Independence Day, Juneteenth, Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month and Suicide Prevention Month, among others.

In the name of these many religious and personal freedoms, the great sacrifices made by military service members and civilians too have paved the road of progress which many LGBTQIA+, African American, and female persons like me enjoy. I stand on their shoulders, vowing to do my part to make life better for future generations. 

Kairos Time

This is why I believe God had a plan for me to develop as a servant leader on the faith side as well as on the business side. The military has helped me sharpen both. For many years I had a career in the U.S. Department of Education, with a focus on student aid as an accountant, compliance manager, and other positions. In 1997, I had a chance encounter with a chaplain recruiter in the lobby of the Howard University School of Divinity. Thirteen years later, still working for the Department of Education, I received a direct commission into the U.S. Air Force as a Reserve military officer in the National Guard.

I can only explain that 13-year hiatus as God’s kairos time where God planted a seed and equipped me to grow into a more integrated whole as a person. My love for the study of servant leadership found a rich new training ground in the military, where I experienced first-hand the teachings and practices that produce citizen-warrior-leaders. 

Ultimately, a military chaplain is a “visible reminder of the holy” to everyone she serves. As a Christian, my role as a servant leader must broadly follow Jesus in the Great Commission “to Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts …” Today this means a larger horizon of care: I try to aid any service member that crosses my path, regardless of religious affiliation, doctrine, dogma, or identity. “That they may all be one”: that is the motto of my ecclesiastical endorser, the United Church of Christ.[2] All prayers prayed in public by a military chaplain are to be non-sectarian and inclusive. They should be prayers that any service member or person listening—religious or unaffiliated—should be able to join without feeling excluded or otherwise offended. 

On deployments, worship service attendance usually increases, since faith and spiritual readiness are core components to military preparedness. Military chaplains, who are non-combatants and prohibited from bearing or firing a weapon, help members who are trying to adjust to the separation from loved ones far from home. Our role is unique in that it is the only occupation within the armed forces where a service member has privileged communication during a counseling session, giving them the freedom to speak with total confidentiality. This is a big deal—a safe space for service members to share any challenges they may be facing. I love talking to them about their families, jobs, struggles, and hopes. It’s so important to have a chaplain or someone to talk to or lean on during critical times. 

Rosary Beads and Red Bull

Suffice it to say, my chaplaincy work has changed my socio-religious-cultural perspective and given me a greater respect for religions that are different from mine. This has not eroded my Christian faith but deepened it. As a military chaplain, it’s my privilege to demonstrate a world-class kind of love.

Just recently, while deployed to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, I was able to meet with members from various faith groups and religions, assist each of them by accommodating their religious needs, serving them with a Christian love. I provided Bibles and rosary beads to Christians, prayer rugs to Muslims, a rabbi to Jews, a meditation space for yogis, a beard waiver for the Norse Pagan, Red Bull energy drinks for the non-religious and, finally, the universal language of music (piano and voice) to all the worship services. During Pride Month, I held a screen filming and discussion of The Lavender Scare, a 2017 documentary about the mid-20thCentury witch hunt to oust federal employees suspected of being gay. Air wing leaders provided an open-door policy, asking attendees for ideas to improve conditions across the base for creating a safer/braver space for LGBTQIA+ service members. On a different cultural note, the young airmen and soldiers chose me to be the very first Juneteenth speaker at that base in the Middle East. I was ecstatic! I shared facts of African American history intertwined with significant notes of U.S. history and military history too. It is a joy to serve in so many facets of culture and awareness with some of the bravest people I know—our valued servicemen and servicewomen in our nation’s defense.  

A Faith that Liberates

“For God so loved the world…” That first phrase of John 3:16 captures the type of love I get a chance to practice in military chaplaincy, a love that extends to everyone in the world. In the military, I get the opportunity to honor the ministry of Jesus, ministering to a broad and diverse force, offering good will to all I meet. 

These experiences compel me now to pursue the work of preventing the high rate of suicides in veterans and LGBTQIA+ youth today. I am deeply driven to help all to find a faith that uplifts and liberates the captive, the alienated, the weak, and more. God gives us life. I want to use mine to help other people find purpose and value in theirs.

Countess Cooper ’23 S.T.M. is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air National Guard, a Reserve component of the U.S. Air Force. She recently completed a 30-year career in the U.S. Department of Education, and also served 20 years as a team pastor at a church in Washington, D.C.  As an entrepreneurial community leader, she continues to partner with the District of Columbia Housing Authority and other entities to provide housing to tenants in Congress Heights in D.C. Cooper received an M.B.A degree from Howard University. She served in the National Guard while at YDS.

1. Chaplains have served to boost soldier morale and spiritual readiness since 1775, when the Chaplain Corps was established, On July 29, 1775, General George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, appointed three officers in his first act of Congress—a brigadier general, a quartermaster (logistics) and a chaplain.

2. The Air Force recognizes and commissions ministers/representatives from more than 220 ecclesiastical endorsing bodies. That number continues to rise.