An interview with military chaplain Zachary Moon
Friends Journal: How does someone who grows up in a Liberal Friends meeting in one of the most liberal cities in the United States end up becoming a military chaplain?
Both of my parents came to Liberal Quakerism as young adults. My dad served in the Army in Vietnam, where he was an avid reader. Some Quaker troublemaker, no doubt, back here in the States put a copy of John Woolman’s Journal in a donation box bound for Vietnam. My father picked it up and very much engaged with it; when he came back to the United States after his service, he wanted to find out if these Quaker folks were still around.
My mom connected to Quakers at the University of California, Berkeley, which launched her into a whole life of peace and justice activism work. She cut her teeth on the antiwar movement at UC Berkeley, which was such a hotbed in the late 1960s and early 1970s when she was an undergraduate there. In that way, my family of origin story is very much shaped by war in these particular ways.
My first couple of jobs after college were with progressive interfaith activist organizations. A turning point for me came when I became aware of how much dehumanizing rhetoric we communicated about those on the other side of social and political issues. The usual targets were Republicans, Evangelical Christians, and anyone connected to the military. As I became aware of this pattern, I experienced a dissonance between my work and my faith which called me to love strangers and even enemies.
I felt I needed to go to where these enemies were and try to meet them on their terms—rather than claiming to have a corner on capital-T truth. Even if we disagreed on everything and anything, I wanted to try to listen deeply and find ways to be in a compassionate way with people. That’s where the chaplaincy work began.
Some Christians speak of conviction, and I felt a kind of conviction reading the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 in the Bible. Cornelius is part of the Roman military and would have been very much at odds with Peter and his community. What was captivating to me was the vision that Peter receives. Peter says to his friends that he’s feeling hungry, a mention of longing and unfulfillment. He falls into a trance where he receives a vision in which a blanket lowers from the heavens, full of things to eat—except they’re the wrong kind of things. For Peter, as a Jew, they are religiously unclean foods, not the kosher foods he was supposed to eat. He says, in a prophetic call story structure, “God, you’ve gotten it wrong.” God’s response broke my heart open: “Don’t call unclean what I have made clean.”
Can I believe—because I hope to believe—that God is infinitely powerful and able to blow the roof off our ways of thinking about the world and ourselves and each other? If I can lean into that, can I actually find a way to enter into those deemed-unclean places and enter into relationship with those deemed-unclean persons to discover God doing amazing work with us and through us in those moments? For me, this is my guiding framework as a chaplain with those in the military and their families.
FJ: As a military chaplain, you’ve been through military training and wear a uniform. You yourself are a non-combatant, but the Marines you’re working with carry weapons and have been trained in killing techniques. How does your Quaker upbringing and training carry over into that very different environment?
Some of my better skills as a chaplain are through-and-through Quaker. Colleagues often remark that I look totally comfortable being in silence when they’re nervous about something someone said. Not knowing what to say, they still wanted to fill the silence. They noticed that I didn’t feel the need to do that; this is Quakerism all the way down. So much of what I do as a chaplain is discernment work. I feel as if I’m often a one-person clearness committee for people. That has everything to do with how I grew up, the people who raised me, and the religious context I was raised in.
FJ: Are there tools in the Quaker community that we can lean on in order to better understand others and build the kinds of relationships you’re talking about?
While in Friends worship, we sometimes hear a message that doesn’t necessarily resonate with us or make sense to us, yet we endeavor to “listen beyond the words.” I feel we’re more practiced at this form of listening because of the ways we worship.
Much of this work is about the church being the church. We don’t need special training. We don’t need our meetinghouses to be mental health clinics. We don’t need to be a veterans’ organization. We don’t even need to change our ideological commitments. The opportunity here is in being in relationship person-to-person.
FJ: It takes time to actually build a relationship, not just to pigeon-hole someone in 30 seconds that they have post-traumatic stress disorder. What are successful congregations doing? How do we build those real relationships?
After my first week as a chaplain, I understood that I was going to have only five or ten minutes with people who I might never see again. Many of these issues can’t be addressed in five or ten minutes—or even five or ten hours. It’s stuff that’s going to take some time. Who has the benefit of time? In my estimation, it’s communities.
If we could do a better job on a society level of supporting interpersonal environments, I have no doubt the VA would have less business and would not be overwhelmed as it is now. That’s the only thing we’re putting on the table in any kind of significant way. Folks are saying either medicine is going to help or not help: that’s the only thing to consider. Congregations talk about cradle-to-grave relationships. While I know these don’t always happen, a religious community—unlike us chaplains—has the opportunity to walk with someone over a period of days, weeks, months, and years. That kind of relationship is really significant.
You may have heard a veteran say: “I can only trust another veteran to hear and understand my story.” Civilians hear that and either are offended or sympathize, and they think there’s nothing for them to do. The problem is that only a tiny fraction of our population has served in the military during this time. If veterans aren’t able to build trustworthy relationships with civilians, their interpersonal world for the rest of their lives becomes very narrow.
FJ: To consider nuts and bolts, say a meeting comes to you: they’ve decided to start talking about things and have a ministry that reaches out and builds these relationships. How would they get started?
You start with the people who are already in your community; you need to know who’s in the room. As with much Quaker discernment, there’s an inventory part to the process: “What’s God calling us to do?” and “What has God provided for us to do this ministry?” What’s one of the biggest resources? It’s the people in the room, right? As we start to look beyond the meetinghouse, we should get to know the other organizations that are out there working on these issues. Let’s not be so sure that we’re doing something that no one has ever done before. Let’s figure out if we have some great ready-made partners.
I also recognize that for many religious communities—Quaker or otherwise—the default position is to put together a program. This is often what we refer to when we say “ministry,” which I think is unfortunate.
When the military folks I serve with have a problem, they don’t think to themselves, “Oh, I should find a program that helps me to address that.” Instead, they seek trustworthy people to talk to. Rather than thinking about a program, the self-reflexive work that we’re doing on ourselves is the very program that is needed. We do this work so we can be more hospitable, engaging, and compassionate with all sorts of “other” people.
In many ways, this is like any other cross-cultural work, needing the same skills: deep listening, not making assumptions about people, and working on ourselves before entering into relationships. For example, Quakers doing anti-racism work are realizing that white privilege needs to be addressed; there’s some intentional balancing of the scales. We have to do deep work and be part of communities of accountability.
If we need a case study for institutional programs not working, go by your local VA hospital and see how they’re doing. Do you see a lot of happy faces or a lot of frustration? People feel frustrated when they must fit themselves into a category, box, program, or diagnosis.
When a medical model is used, a person is seen as a set of symptoms to be treated through medication or therapy. Our churches don’t have to be like that. If we can do anything miraculous and counter-cultural in our time, it would be to engage with people as people. We know veterans are getting a medical-model treatment. Let’s try to operate out of a different framework and set of principles, and really seek to build and sustain humanizing relationships.