Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy) (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.

A good friend once suggested that I start using the term “America’s Favorite Chaplain” to promote my public speeches.

“No," I said. “I prefer the moniker, ‘The Bomb-Dump Chaplain.’” His quizzical expression prompted a story from an earlier day.

In 1994, I took my first active-duty assignment at Onizuka Air Station outside San Jose, Calif. One day, our supervisor, James Young, informed the staff of an upcoming inspection from the Command Chaplain’s office in Denver.

In civilian lingo, this moment would compare to a church getting a visit from its bishop or district overseer. During upcoming weeks, we worked diligently starching our uniforms and vigorously varnishing the prayer benches.

But the exhausting part was preparing something called our Unit Visitation Statistics. “The report,” said Chaplain Young, “should include a count of all chaplain interactions with airmen on base.”

“How do you define ‘interactions’?” I asked.

“That’s up to you,” Young said, handing us the form. “Don’t forget to record where your interactions take place.”

Ours was a young and ambitious staff. We wanted to look as good as possible by generating as many numbers as possible.

So we busied ourselves crisscrossing the base for the next week. We’d stroll to the gym or the dining hall and greet all passersby — ping, ping, ping, — documenting 40 pastoral visits in an afternoon without breaking a sweat.

Yes, like a lot of officers, chaplains can be competitive. We were engaging in a practice that bureaucrats call “pencil whipping,” manipulating the stats with a simple slide of the pencil on a report.

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage, “Statistics don’t lie, but statisticians certainly do.”

Command Chaplain, Col. Benjamin Perez, arrived bright and early on inspection day and cloistered us in the chapel fellowship hall.

Perez was a short, fit, steely eyed Texan, keen with anecdotes.

Trying to set us at ease, he suggested we not think of his visit as an inspection. “I’m only here to help.”

Military folks will tell you to beware of the officer who begins his introduction with, “I’m from headquarters, and I’m here to help.” That officer is more likely to be a P.I.P., (pain in the patootie).

But as a good Command Chaplain — and Perez was among the sharpest —  he saw past our manipulated stats. He saw the places we hid because he was looking for the forgotten airmen.

Holding our reports in hand, Perez posed his signature question: “How many of you have been to the bomb dump?”

The “bomb dump” is the unofficial name for the secluded place where hazardous explosive devices are rendered safe. The airmen there are not the celebrated “Bomb Squad,” they are a forgotten group of isolated engineers who worry about public safety.

Now here’s the funny thing, our base didn’t have a bomb dump. Perez knew Onizuka was a Space Command base that tracked satellite trajectories.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of my military ministry would change that day in a slight but significant way.

Perez was using “bomb dump” as a euphemism for the place populated by the forgotten people. He didn’t care how many visits we were making to headquarters or the gym. He wanted to know if we knew the names of our cleaning staff. Could we recall our subordinates and their families by their first names?

His question was a not-so-subtle biblical inference to Matthew 25 where Jesus taught that caring for those of a lesser privilege — the prisoner, the sick, the immigrant — was the equivalent of caring for Jesus himself.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Anyone working in the bomb dump might well be counted among the “least of these.” That’s why Perez considered visits made to the secluded and forgotten sides of a base to be the test of a real chaplain.

His question became the guiding reminder early in my career that while statistics remain a necessary tool, they aren’t the mission. People are.

Perhaps one day I will become known as “America’s Favorite Chaplain,” but for now, I’ll settle for being called the “Bomb-Dump Chaplain.”

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715.