U.S. Africa Command held its annual strategic religious affairs conference at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, from Aug. 15-17, 2023. Chaplains and their Senior Enlisted Religious Affairs Advisors joined from U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) Service Component Commands, U.S. National Guards State Partnership Program, Department of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. European Command.
The purpose of the annual conference is to provide a face-to-face venue for various religious support teams to coordinate, collaborate, and synchronize strategic key religious leader engagements in Africa. During the three-day gathering, chaplains discussed various phrases such as “interoperability,” “key religious leader engagement,” and “military-to-military (M2M);” The common denominator in every session was “engagement.” The AFRICOM Office of the Command Chaplain (JO34) considered every attendee as a co-laborer in the work of Strategic Religious Affairs. The relationships and synchronization of the efforts built this week are paramount to AFRICOM’s continued successes—and were highlighted by nearly every participant.
“When I looked around the room and saw chaplains among us that have been working with African partners through the State Partnership Program for close to 20 years, I realized the longevity and historic relationships that go way beyond our assignments to the U.S. Africa Command. This conference set the stage for successful strategic, operational, and tactical religious engagements and new opportunities well into the future” said U.S. Air Force Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Bell, acting Command Chaplain, U.S. Africa Command.
Representatives from various USAFRICOM directorates supported the conference by providing subject matter experts as guest speakers. The majority of the SMEs were from the J5, (AFRICOM Strategy, Engagement, and Programs). The J5 director, Major General Kenneth Ekman (USAF) talked to the Religious Support Teams about the importance of strategic religious affairs in support of the AFRICOM campaign plan and lines of effort. Ekman spoke at great length about his personal faith and gratitude for chaplains and their mission.
Lindsey Brothers, USAFRICOM Gender Advisor (J54), spoke on how Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) considerations and programming are integrated throughout the Combatant Command and Component Commands and how religious affairs support these vital efforts.
In addition to learning the intricacies of the command's mission, its authorities, responsibilities, command & control, and guidance for its components, the highlight of many chaplains was gathering in person. The senior chaplain at Camp Lemonnier, Commander Dan Sorensen said, "The RAC gave chaplains deployed to the continent of Africa a chance to meet with other chaplains, Religious Affairs NCOs, and Religious Program Specialists (RP) in order to discuss current events, unique operational environments, and requirements for providing or facilitating the spiritual needs of service members in Africa."
Whether meeting for the first time or reuniting with friends, institute capacity building begins with these types of conferences, said Commander Ryan Bareng, Deputy Command Chaplain of USAFRICOM (J034). Chaplain Bareng admits, “The months of coordination required to get all of the teams in the same room is a daunting task, but the juice is always worth the squeeze. Setting the conditions for the success of all our chaplains is the primary reason why our office exists. Overall, three days of face-to-face meetings was more productive than three months of email conversations.”
CJTF-HOA Command Chaplain, Captain John Williams found the RAC to be very beneficial. Williams shared, “Communication happens best when it is face-to-face. This opportunity to have time to communicate with other chaplains who work in and around my lane will not only benefit myself as I provide religious support, it also allows me to be a blessing to my command, the mission, and most importantly to the service members entrusted to my care. Events like RAC ultimately benefit those who the chaplain serves. It's a beautiful thing to be alongside fellow chaplains whose main goal is to bless the Service member. Discussing how the Unit Ministry Team fit into our joint environment gave me new tools and ideas to honor God and to honor country.”
The conference culminated on the third day with an offsite professional development training led by Jeff Nevin, USAG Stuttgart Religious Support Office, Director of Religious Education. The participants gained an understanding of the religious and historical significance of downtown Stuttgart and Germany with a broader global context of religious affairs.
USAFRICOM and international partners have a shared interest in promoting a secure, stable, and prosperous Africa to address complex challenges across the continent and religious affairs have a vital role.