Author: Sara Coen
Photographer: All images used with permission.

When theology graduate Fr John Sanderson was deployed to Afghanistan as a military chaplain, his weapon of warfare was a peaceful demeanour.

So Padre, how did you get to be a Padre? How many times have you been deployed? How long have you been here? Where else have you served? These are Fr John Sanderson’s standard army conversation starters. After the initial hail of questions, he starts to build a rapport with his soldiers. 

“A soldier can smell bullshit a mile off. They know straight away when someone is genuine or not. Honest rapport and relationship is critical to effective ministry,” he said. 

When Fr Sanderson was first approached to become a Defence Force Chaplain he was caught off guard.  

“I thought I would be too old, but apparently I was well placed to journey with people in a war zone,” he said. “At the time I was working in the corporate world in Australia and had just been offered a new position, and a significant salary.”

Instead, Fr Sanderson resigned from his job and started a degree in theology, part of the in-service training scheme for Defence Force Chaplains. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.

“I was the right person in the right place at the right time. Everything I had done in my professional life had prepared me for the experience. Being an ordained priest coupled with my studies in theology provided a sound framework for my ministry work in Afghanistan with the soldiers and their families,” he said.

Life on the ground

Serving in Afghanistan

During his deployment in Afghanistan, Fr Sanderson was technically not permitted outside the wire. He was based on the barracks where he conducted regular church services, para-liturgies and prayers for the soldiers and their family members. He was also required to conduct a number of Memorial Services and Ramp Ceremonies, and minister to the wounded and dying. 

Fr Sanderson was deployed to Afghanistan during a period of high tempo, high intensity operations which translated to high coalition casualties. 

“You come up against a lot of stereotypes and assumptions about the Church, about the Bible and about Jesus and you need to know how to gently diffuse those ideas in a non-defensive way. If you hedge your bets and if you can’t articulate your beliefs, you immediately lose credibility.

“In Afghanistan the soldiers would visit me as they would a doctor or a dentist. They considered me to be a specialist in my field and would often ask for advice about topics such as faith, life and death.


Enduring relationships

Many of these relationships established during deployment have endured, with Fr Sanderson presiding over several marriages of the soldiers he served with, and baptisms of their children, upon his return to Australia.

“War can be incredibly emotionally taxing for the men and women who are deployed, but I think it’s often even harder for the family members who are left behind. They are the unseen heroes, who support their loved ones on deployment, and importantly, on their return home.” 

Father John Sanderson completed a Master of Arts (Theology) at ACU. He was deployed to Afghanistan for a second time in 2014, as well as East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Learn more about studying theology at ACU.

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