Dear St. Anthony’s:
This month has been an unusual month for me here in Afghanistan. Because of the Paschal season, I have been doing some especially interesting travel, as I have Orthodox people from 9 different countries to support in this country - Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Canada, Russia, America, Georgia, Macedonia, and the Netherlands! I thought I would send this article to the Desert News, in order to share some things from my travels with you.
First of all, there is an actual Orthodox Church in Afghanistan. Let me say that again. There is a Church- not just a chapel – here in Afghanistan, which is to our knowledge the only free-standing, permanent Church structure of any kind in the entire country. According to the CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan is thought to be 80% Sunni Muslim, 19% Shi’a Muslim, and 1% “other” (this one percent is mostly made up of small breakaway sects of Islam). Christianity is almost non-existent here, and Afghani Christians would be ostracized in every community that we know of. But there is still one Church in the country!
Back in 2001, The Romanian Army sent an infantry battalion to Kandahar, joining with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division and 9 other NATO countries to provide a military and diplomatic response to the attacks of September 11th. Each NATO force built its own compound, and the Romanians were not going to be without a Church in theirs. They had loved ones back home send pictures of a particularly beautiful monastery chapel in Transylvania (the central region of Romania), and with the help of an ethnically Romanian U.S. Army Engineer, they drew blueprints and built a replica of this chapel in Kandahar, made entirely out of wood. The results are absolutely stunning.
I first saw the Church from over a mile away, its tower climbing up out of the base’s landscape almost 4 stories high. I had come to Kandahar to visit some Marines from my Battalion that were temporarily working at the airfield, and had agreed to provide services for Orthodox members of the American military serving there, and also for those of other countries. As I walked toward the Church, I marveled more and more at its size and beauty, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt walking inside. After holding services every week in tents, with makeshift altars and some small portable religious items, I entered into a Church lined with beautiful frescoes and icons, some 3 feet in height, plants and flowers lining the center aisle, and even a little bell-house outside, for letting the community know when Church is being held. Entering the altar I found all of the implements and accoutrements I would find in any Church, and a picture of a Romania bishop blessing and consecrating the Church several years earlier.
One of the Orthodox Christian Marines from my battalion had traveled with me, to help me with services, and the two of us took a few minutes to stop and pray, asking for God’s blessing on us and thanking him for this true spiritual oasis in a war-torn and weary land.
During the Easter season we held 5 services, including Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. We had an incredible time with all those who came to worship, who hailed from America, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Russia, and Canada. The Romanians were incredibly hospitable, and I developed a love for them as a people in that short 5 days that will last for the rest of my life, I am sure. In between services I remained in the Church, and had the opportunity to talk to dozens of people who had just seen the Church and decided to stop in – Christians of all kinds, and some of no faith background.
RP3 and I returned to Camp Leatherneck on the Monday before Easter, where we as a Chaplain team normally spend about two-thirds of our time. It was a great time for Easter to fall this year, because a fairly large turnover was taking place in the various Marine units across the country. Camp Leatherneck, being the Marine Headquarters for Afghanistan, also serves as a sort of transit station for departing and arriving Marines, and so several Marines just coming into country or just preparing to leave were able to make services, who otherwise may have been in some remote location and unable to attend. In addition, Scott Hakim was able to be present because of his recently sustained injuries in battle – one of our regional surgical hospitals is located at a British airfield adjacent to Camp Leatherneck, and he was still in recovery. It filled me with joy to have him with us, and was just one of many ways that St. Anthony’s was in my heart this Pascha.
At 2330, or 11:30 PM on Saturday night, our service began, and took us right into Easter morning. We had about 15 Orthodox Marines and Sailors present (quite a good size for a military chapel during deployment), and were lighting candles for everyone to hold when a friend of mine named John, a Marine infantry Captain from Tarpon Springs, FL, led about 30 soldiers from the Republic of Georgia into the small tent we were using. He had a triumphant smile on his face, and it was indeed a triumphant moment, but wow were we crowded in our little chapel tent! To top everything off, two Indian Christians entered in the back and stood in the doorway – it was a very NATO celebration.
I will never forget the joy of that service. I nearly broke down in tears while reading the sermon of St. John Chrysostom, and again while giving communion to a newly chrismated member of my Battalion for the first time. After the service ended, the joy continued – we ate sweet breads sent to us from our St. Anthony’s family, and sang “Christ is Risen!” at the top of our lungs. I also gave away almost all of the beautiful little icons that you sent, as a Church, along with bottles of holy water. Scott called the distribution of these items “the Great Church Giveaway.” Afterwards most of us broke our Lenten fast at mid-rats, short for “midnight rations,” the 4th meal of the day provided for those working odd hours, and lasting from 0000-0300. A burger hit the spot just fine for me.
Those are just a couple of stories out of many during the month of April. In these months away from my family, there is a big hole at the center of me. I have never gotten used to being away from my wife and daughter, and I never will – they are a part of me, and I refuse to ignore or eliminate my longing for them. I choose to live with longing, because that is what it means to be truly human. During these times my faith sustains me. And, you know, your faith as a Church sustains me – us – also. That’s what it means to be a spiritual family. St. Anthony’s was here in Afghanistan this year, and Scott and I both knew it. It was more than your icons and breads and cards, of course, although those things made our celebration special. I believe that we are also carried along by your prayers at Church and at home.
I send all of you love from my family. Little Eve turned 1 the day after Pascha! I also send you love from Scott, who is now back into the battle in Northeastern Helmand Province. Do not miss a day of praying for him, if you can remember. And please pray also for me.
Fr. David Alexander