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By David O’Grady
When the staff of the Newman Center was introduced to the congregation two weeks ago, one priest stood out from the rest. Dressed in Army uniform, Rev. John Whiteley introduced himself and quietly asked, “Anyone interested in a desert retreat?"
In his own wry sense of humor, Whiteley, an associate pastor at the Newman Center and an Army chaplain with the 5503rd U.S. Army reserve unit, was referring to the current crisis in the Persian Gulf. Though Whiteley won't comment on the prospects of being transferred to the Middle East, the conflict has not changed his views on his role as a chaplain.
“I think the chaplain's challenge is to represent goodness in all moments of human life—even in adversity,'' said Whiteley as he reclined in his dark, secluded office in the Newman Center, 701 Maryland Ave. “I think those people who are putting their life at risk—those who are facing their own mortality—have a real right to ministry.”
During mass his soft, wavering voice relates candid sermons that rely on content and not dynamics for impact. He almost seems too sensitive, too introspective to submit to the bark of a commanding officer.
“He comes across as rigid at times, but I could not see him in a real strict environment,” said Rev. Mike Quinn, pastor of Newman Center. “His ideas on peace and war and the poor don't seem to fit. I see the military as draining of our resources.”
To many, Whiteley seems enigmatic, baffling. He frequently keeps to himself, and he is the only Newman staff member who lives in the center.
“He seems like such a recluse sometimes that I used to wonder why he was a priest,” said Amy Winkelbauer, an MU student and former Newman Center receptionist. “But he's so connected with the good things and God's impact that he couldn't be anything but a priest.” Even Whiteley admits he's introverted, calling himself an “I-N-F-P” based on his results from the popular psychological self-exam. But he said that he has no problems working within the restrictions of military life.
“You don't order people at mass to salute,” Whiteley said. “My primary training comes from the seminary. The military training is secondary, and it helps me interface with military personnel because now I understand the structure.”
Like many people, Whiteley harbored misconceptions about Army chaplains, until a campus ministry program at the University of Missouri–Rolla brought him in touch with chaplains and soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood.
“I felt strange at first—they were all dressed up like trees,” Whiteley said. “They talked a lot of initials. But soon I got to meet the chaplains in the ministry, and I realized that they are real, authentic, very caring people. I never had met a military chaplain. I thought they would be less authentic by their involvement in the military. I was wrong.”
Under the guidance of two chaplains at Fort Leonard Wood, Whiteley completed his training as an Army chaplain in 1985 and joined the 5503rd reserve unit in Columbia. Whiteley's obligations include two weeks of training each summer in Fort Monmouth, N.J. and one weekend a month with his unit, which is trained to maintain a hospital unit.
Though it's doubtful the 5503rd will be deployed overseas, the unit could be called in to replace personnel at Fort Leonard Wood. Whiteley declines to talk about the recent crisis, but those near him know the conflict is on his mind.
''I think the whole issue of the gulf concerns John—the buildup, the number of people's lives being disrupted,” said Sister Mary Kay Hadican, pastoral minister at Newman. “He probably has a keener awareness of the effects of listening to people who have been called up without any warning. He has a greater appreciation of that.”
Before arriving at church on Sunday for the staff introduction, Whiteley
had been fulfilling his weekend obligation by visiting a VA hospital and
talking to patients. During his visit Whiteley spoke to a former POW that
reaffirmed his belief in the need for chaplains. “He (the former
POW) said to me, ‘I didn't see myself as religious, but I always
went to service while on active duty. It was the chaplains that gave me
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