Atsugi chapel meeting soothes some concerns

The chapel on Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, is in a dojo, a wresting center built by the Japanese military in the 1930s. It's the only religious facility on base, and as such, it should not have any permanent display of icons that represent a specific faith. The current chaplain has made changes to the inside of the building, and the crosses on the outside will come down eventually, the base commander said Friday.



NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI, Japan — A long-term review of the chapel facility will begin here this month, an effort to ensure all faiths are welcome in the sole religious building on base, according to the base commander.

The goal of the review is to determine how and when the broad changes — which are likely to include the removal of three crosses — will be made in order to bring the chapel into line with Pentagon and Navy regulations.

The base serves about 5,000 U.S. servicemembers, family members and workers.

Other military bases around the world may have more than one worship area, and they can have permanent icons such as crosses so long as there is another place for non-Christians, Navy officials said Friday.

But that’s not the case at Atsugi. For decades, the community has used one building — a former Japanese dojo, or wrestling center, built by the Japanese military in the 1930s.

As the sole facility, the chapel should be as neutral as possible to welcome all faiths, according to Cooper.

"Our first goal is to establish a timeline on how we’re going to make these modifications ... with the utmost respect and reverence for these symbols that have been here for a long time," Cooper said Friday afternoon, after meeting with some parishioners and explaining moves he and the base’s chaplain are making.

"But our guidance is to follow the regulations," Cooper said. "How we do that has to be done with the proper respect and the input from the congregation."

Cooper and the base’s chaplain, Navy Cmdr. Douglas Rosander, have made it a priority in recent months to make the building, which now has Roman Catholic and protestant services, more inclusive. They also want to bring some of the worshipers’ traditional activities more in line with Department of Defense regulations.

Those changes, however, flared tempers and hurt feelings in recent weeks as some users of the chapel felt their religion was being disregarded and their voices at the chapel diminished.

One move Cooper discussed Friday with a handful of parishioners involved an end to using a government vehicle as part of serving a charity called Homeless Ministry, an altruistic effort but one that violates the military’s vehicle rules, he said.

Another rule makes it cumbersome for people to donate items to the military, even to a Pentagon-run chapel, he said. That means personal items used at religious services should be taken away after worship ends, he said.

Some of the parishioners who attended the briefing said they felt Cooper’s explanations were fair and sensible.

"The CO’s being fair," said Jack Garton of Cooper. Garton is the aquatics director for Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Atsugi and has attended Catholic services on base for seven years.

"You can see that it’s the due process," Garton said. "So, at least the voices of the parishioners are being heard. That’s all that we can hope for." Kris Edwards, who is a youth teacher in the Catholic group, said she was encouraged by the meeting and wished it had happened sooner.

"It’s been a difficult road for everybody," she said after Cooper’s 40-minute meeting. "I think that not everybody sees eye-to-eye on every single one of these issues. We all just need to bond together with all the changes that are happening."

That difficult road began a few weeks ago as some of the changes about vehicle use and storing items went into effect. It got worse when some parishioners felt they were made to remove religious statues from the chapel.

Rosander said he never asked for the removal of the statues nor did he remove them, as Stars and Stripes reported on Thursday.

Rather, Rosander said Friday, he was trying to get all users of the chapel to take back any personal or donated items being stored in the building, another violation of the rules. He said he began this process by distributing a flier that asked people to take home smaller items such as Christmas decorations, silk flowers or baskets by Aug. 29.

He had planned to handle the statues differently, he said. Some parishioners, however, felt the memo included their statues and they felt pressure to remove precious items. Rosander said that was not his intention.

At about the same time, Rosander was making final changes to the Catholics’ Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

Part of his overall goal for the chapel was to create a second, smaller worship area as an alternative to the main sanctuary, which seats 236 and is used for five services each Sunday, he said.

The new room took the place of the former Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a special room Roman Catholics use to pray, meditate and store the communion host, Rosander said. The new room serves those needs, he said.

On Friday, statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Joseph adorned the room. The statues are owned by the chapel, and they will stay in the room unless the parishioners want to use them in the sanctuary during mass, Rosander said. After the service, they will be returned to the special chapel.

And as for the crosses on the outside of the chapel?

"It’s the million-dollar question," Rosander said Friday.

Neither he nor Cooper are making any immediate plans to take them away. Any structural changes would likely come if the building needs construction or renovation, Cooper said.

Still, he and Rosander acknowledged, one day they will be gone.

Now, Rosander is working to make the chapel open 24 hours a day. The chapel’s traditional Thanksgiving feast, which Cooper himself attended last year, likely will be incorporated into an MWR event to meet more regulatory rules.

"We’ve got to carry on," Garton, the parishioner, said of the changes. "We’ve got to carry on with all our faith groups. We’re going to keep the homeless ministry and the community events going any way we can. We have to follow rules just like any other command. I have no problem about that."

Capt. Justin D. Cooper II, commander of Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, listens Friday as a member of the base's Catholic parish talks about confusion over some religious statues in the chapel. Military regulations require private property, like the statues, not be stored permanently in a miltiary building. Other statues of Jesus, Joseph and the Virgin Mary remain in the chapel's Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a special area for Catholics.

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