Ministering to some 700 National Guard and Army troops during New York City’s severe COVID-19 outbreak might seem daunting. But not to Anthony Stephens, an ELCA pastor and an Army chaplain.
Since 2016, Stephens has served as senior chaplain to Joint Task Force Empire Shield, part of the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs. The task force protects the city’s bridges, airports, tunnels and train stations from security threats, and has also responded to the recent outbreak.
Stephens, 58, helps troops deal with their anxiety over serving on the front lines and possibly contracting the virus. He’s also counseling those with family members or friends who are sick, jobless or challenged by other hardships.
“Service members think of a chaplain as someone to go to with problems,” Stephens said. “I talk with strict confidentiality, and I know a lot of what they speak. Being a bit older, having a family, children, education, financial woes … all provide me a rich perspective to be attentive to their issues.”
Stephens ministers to the troops by “roaming around,” meeting with them at their stations at John F. Kennedy International Airport or Grand Central Station. “I do my level best to be conspicuous,” he said. “My contacts are pinned to bulkheads. I’m always circulating and mingling.”
How is God showing up amid the coronavirus crisis? “In many ways, there’s a feeling of defenselessness against this virus,” Stephens said. “We were all exposed before social distancing, and we can’t escape that. There’s a sense that you can wash your hands just so many times; that we’re in God’s hands now.” Stephens added that the crisis has given him a renewed sense of gratitude.
With his flock, he offers this reassurance: “We talk about peace a lot. I feel a sense of God’s peace. God is sending his peace.”
Called to chaplaincy
Stephens knew as a teenager that he’d go into ministry. His father, grandfather, great-uncle and great-great-uncle were Anglican priests in his native England. Since graduating from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1995 with a Master of Divinity, Stephens has spent the past 25 years earning advanced degrees. He holds a second master’s in human development and counseling, a doctorate in education with a focus on cognitive psychology and counseling, and a law degree, which he earned to better understand the legalities around those he counsels (for example, women in abusive relationships).
As a pastor, chaplain and counselor, Stephens has ministered to parishes, prisons, counseling centers and psychiatric hospitals, giving voice to social justice issues. He has counseled the sick, the mentally ill, and victims of trauma and domestic violence, including immigrants, seafarers and people affected by 9/11.
“Nothing that I’ve done in my life has been wasted,” Stephens said. “My experiences have been used in sermons, to be less judgmental, and to give me perspective.”
A resident of Poughkeepsie, Stephens was named part-time chaplain of the National Guard’s 501st EOD Battalion in New York in 2012 and deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. Back home, he served during the city’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy. His full-time chaplaincy with Task Force Empire Shield has forced him to leave his last ELCA call, at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., but he still serves as vicar at an Episcopal church in Stony Point, N.Y.
Of all his assignments, his current call is closest to his heart, and something he worked for his entire life. “Back in seminary, a Navy recruiter showed up and we talked and prayed,” Stephens said. “I knew I’d be called someday to military chaplaincy.”