I was born in New York in 1972 and raised together with my sister Jill by our parents, Richard and Susan, on the southern coast of Maine. Until my eighteenth birthday, I attended public schools and received no formal religious education. I grew up in the wake of the U.S. War in Vietnam–a war my father had served in as a medical officer for the U.S. Navy–and watched the First Gulf War (1980-1988), as well as the final years of the Cold War (1985-1991), unfold on television. I learned at a young age that war hurts and I should be skeptical of military solutions. Growing up in a medical family and running a family Bed and Breakfast out of our home were significant life events that taught me to value compassion, hospitality and public service, and were formative influences on my path to ministry. My mom also taught me, “if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all,” but that was one lesson that never took root. With the vast ocean in my backyard, I also cultivated a sense of wonder and awe that I have carried with me throughout my life.
I left Maine to enroll in Rhode Island School of Design, but my social conscience was awakened by the Second Gulf War (1990-1991) and the Rodney King Riots (1992) so I dropped out after two years, preferring instead a life of poverty and spiritual discipline within the Unification Church, an organization that seemed to me, at the time, to be a catalyst for undoing racism and creating positive social change. During my decade of involvement in that community I met and married my life partner, Mitsuko Ishikawa. Many mainline churches regard the Unification Church as heretical. Because of my religious affiliation, I experienced, for the first time in my life, a degree of religious intolerance and persecution that caused real harm to me and my spouse.
As a result of this experience, I became an advocate for religious freedom. After Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 I entered seminary and began work as a research associate for a Washington D.C. based advocacy group, lobbying government officials, like the then Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Robert Seiple at the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, and members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. My research in seminary and graduate school contributed to the first five editions of the Annual International Religious Freedom Report to Congress. This was a formative period in my life, and shaped my path to professional religious leadership. As I discerned my call, the long-standing Unitarian Universalist commitment to religious freedom is what resonated with me most and drew me into this faith.
I was teaching and doing research in South Korea with Mitsuko and our first two sons when the tragedies of September 11, 2001 occurred. I watched from afar as the Bush Administration launched the Third Gulf War (2003-2011) and witnessed Korean outrage over speculations that North Korea would be the next target of President Bush’s “preventive war” against the “axis of evil.” When I returned to the U.S. in 2003 I completed my seminary degree. By then my theological orientation had shifted and I had come to reject core tenets of Unification Church dogma, so I followed my heart to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Poughkeepsie where the Reverend Kay Greenleaf gave me a warm welcome and I found the community a good fit. At the age of thirty-five, I decided to pursue a career as an ordained minister and Rev. Greenleaf became my mentor. Faced with evangelicals in the U.S. military jeopardizing religious freedom and stoking intolerance against Muslims, and troubled by the moral hazard and human cost of U.S. expeditionary warfare, I began to discern a call to military chaplaincy.
In 2007, I began clinical pastoral education in trauma and Veterans Affairs hospitals, completing more than three thousand hours over the next four years, under the supervision of the Reverends Susan Lunning, Harlan Ratmeyer, Bob Anderson and Sr. Maureen Mitchell. I also studied under the guidance of Edward Tick, co-founder of Soldier’s Heart and author of the influential book War and the Soul. I completed my parish internship at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany under the supervision of the Reverend Sam Trumbore, and was ordained by that Society on March 20, 2011. Douglas Johnston, another one of my teachers, who founded the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and wrote Religion: The Missing Dimension of State-Craft, delivered the ordination sermon. A month later, I was accessioned and commissioned as an Army chaplain.
I was hired as the half-time consulting minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern (UUCRT) and began my service there in September 2011. After I returned from Afghanistan, the UUCRT called me to be their half-time settled minister. I accepted the call and was installed in a ceremony on March 22, 2015. The Reverend Sarah Lammert, Director of Ministries and Faith Development for the UUA, delivered the installation sermon and Dr. Tick provided the charge. In my six years of service at the UUCRT, I led the congregation through the process of identity formation which resulted in the UU Peace Ministry Network recognizing them as the tenth Peace Advocacy Congregation in the UUA. I also built interfaith community through my involvement with the local interfaith council, extended the welcoming ministry to include the gay and lesbian community at the nearby U.S. Military Academy, West Point, as well as refugees like Tariq, and increased the congregation’s presence at the local and national level through press and social media.
During my first five years of ordained ministry, I served both as a parish minister and as a military chaplain, first with the New York National Guard (2011-2013) and later in the U.S. Army Reserve (2014-2016), with one tour on active duty in Afghanistan (2012-2013). In June 2012, I took a leave of absence from the UUCRT for military service in Afghanistan, where I was a chaplain for a signals battalion from the New York Army National Guard supporting the Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. As I was gearing up for my deployment, I entered into a covenant with the Church of the Larger Fellowship and their Board recognized me as their first community minister. I established a written agreement with the Reverend Meg Riley that included an understanding I would post on their public blog site, Quest for Meaning, during my service on active-duty. While deployed to Afghanistan, I established and led the Kandahar Crossroads Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (October 2012 -February 2013), and preached every Sunday. Alas, my service in Afghanistan came to an abrupt end when Brigadier General Scottie D. Carpenter officially reprimanded me for posting one of those sermons, which he regarded as “politically inflammatory,” called “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America,” on Quest for Meaning, where I was identified as a U.S. Army chaplain and a photo of me in uniform had been posted. Major Sean Park served as my Trial Defense Lawyer and helped me respond to the investigator’s questions and provided his rebuttal along with my rebuttal to the reprimand. Despite an appeal supported by dozens of letters from U.S. service-members, veterans, and concerned citizens, including letters of support from subject matter experts like the Reverends Meg Riley and Sarah Lammert, Edward Tick, retired Army chaplain Herman Keizer, and Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor, the reprimand was not rescinded and the signals battalion commander used it as a basis to release me from active-duty, on April 1, 2013.
Although I continued to serve in uniform for three more years, and was promoted to captain and transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve with the help of a Congressional Inquiry by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, I was also becoming active in the Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare and the nuclear disarmament movement, joining Peter Kuznick and a delegation from American University to Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombings. These experiences, together with actions of the Obama Administration, informed my decision to resign my commission, which I did on April 12, 2016, in a public letter to protest U.S. policies on lethal drones, nuclear weapons, and preventive war. I was humbled by the outpouring of support from my colleagues in ministry, who showed their solidarity with me by writing a public letter of their own. My stand of faith and conscience was reported widely in the U.S. media that year, as well as in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and Japan. On July 14, 2016, the Reverend Eric Cherry, Director of the International Office for the UUA, sent me as the UUA Representative for Disarmament, Peace and Security Advocacy on an interfaith delegation to the White House, where we met staff members of the National Security Council to express our concerns about lethal drones. That delegation, and others from the Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare, later developed the Statement to the Trump Transition Team and I helped ensure the UUA was represented on that statement by securing the signature of Taquiena Boston, Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness for the UUA. Rev. Cherry then invited me to be the keynote presenter at the 2017 UU-United Nations Office Inter-generational Spring Seminar, “Interfaith Action to Disarm Our Planet” where I gave a presentation called Left of Boom.
The year after I returned from Afghanistan I began working as a contract chaplain in the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in October 2015 I received a 24-hour a week appointment as staff chaplain at the VA medical center in Philadelphia. While working in Philadelphia, I completed my doctor of ministry degree at Hartford Seminary, where I studied under Heidi Hadsell, Scott Thumma, and Yehezkel Landau. I published a paper on moral injury in a peer-reviewed journal and completed my dissertation, which was based on a moral injury group I launched and led with Peter Yeomans, a staff psychologist. I presented about the moral injury group at the 2017 Annual Conference of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies and now our approach is receiving serious attention from Michael Russell, Director of the VA Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans, in Waco, Texas. Presently, I am preparing to present the program “Moral Injury: The War Inside,” at the 2018 UUA General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri. Currently, and I am one of twenty VA chaplains nationwide participating in a year-long training under the direction of Keith Meador and Jason Nieuwsma called Mental Health Integration for Chaplain Services.