His 23 years of U.S. Army chaplaincy work, including helping to define faith’s place in Army values, has equipped R. Ryder Stevens with rich material as a Christian Science practitioner and lecturer.
Now a retired colonel living in Auburn, Wash., Stevens is devoting his military retirement to speaking for the church about prayer, healing and working through crisis. He will give two free lectures this month in the East Valley.
During his chaplain years, Stevens worked in military commands developing better ways to serve soldiers across diverse religious backgrounds. He also briefed military leaders in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovenia on how American chaplains serve, and talked about such issues as the free exercise of religion, making religious accommodations and preserving confidentiality. He negotiated the attendance of Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims for the first time at a NATO chaplains conference and planned a chaplains training conference for sub-Saharan African countries.
“One of the early things I did was to develop ‘Living Army Values’ for Fort Bliss,” he says in a phone interview. It was copied by the Army for other bases.
“We had an awful lot of young officers and young soldiers coming into the military who really didn’t have an ethical, moral center,” says Stevens, who set about to identify core military values such as integrity, moral courage, honesty and duty, then defining them and making them clear to those in uniform. The military, he says, should operate by the defined values it stands for.
He researched military history and explored the words of great teachers, like stoic philosopher and ex-slave Epictetus, who taught that true good is within oneself and not dependent on external things. “He talked about some of the intrinsic values of one’s life lived in a moral and ethical way,” says Stevens.
Drawing from his mother’s Christian Science background, Stevens says its teachings helped him heal from high school sports injuries and deal with depression.
He was accepted into the church’s chaplaincy training school and entered the Army in 1980 as a chaplain and officer. Stevens was dispatched to combat situations in Grenada, Honduras, Panama and Saudi Arabia.
Injured during Desert Shield in 1990, he returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., and became the division rear chaplain for all military families. “That was a time when all its soldiers were deployed to Saudi Arabia,” he says. As the only active-duty chaplain for the Airborne division families, Stevens recalls it as a time “long before e-mail having the type of connectivity” between troops and their families, and it proved to be demanding yet fulfilling work.
His Christian Science training was especially helpful in evaluating situations and “seeing the real issues, not the presenting problems” through discernment and prayer.
“Christian Science teaches that often the presenting problem, which says, ‘This needs to be healed,’ isn’t what really needs to be healed spiritually,” says Stevens. “Chaplains realize that when you have a soldier, you do not assume anything about their religious background, or having one, even,” he says.
“You can ask them. Otherwise, you just give them words of encouragement and words of faith, very simple things.”
He says when soldiers find themselves in dangerous situations “with the real stuff and not the blanks, they get very interested in learning how to pray, Bible quotes and things like that.”
“The real issue for a chaplain in the military is to go where the soldiers are,” Stevens says. That is more important than officiating over chapel worship services. “A chaplain who goes out on a training road march with the soldiers — and they see him there — is also preaching, and he doesn’t even have to say a word to show he cares.”