As a Michigan Army National Guard chaplain for over 17 years, Lt. Col. Rev. Brian Martinus has built his career around being close to those experiencing suffering, death or loss.
But what does it mean to draw near in a time when physical closeness is rendered unsafe? What does it mean to provide pastoral care to hundreds of soldiers, when traditional means of care are disrupted by a pandemic?
Since mid-2020, Martinus has been working within a presidential directive COVID response team. As healthcare providers work among those affected by COVID-19, Martinus and the chaplains he supervises offer spiritual care for providers and patients alike — offering counseling, logistical support and other resources for emotional health.
At the start of the mission, the task force’s purview included 16 states in three Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) region, then expanded to hospitals and community vaccination centers in all 50 states and all 10 FEMA regions, before contracting (at the time of publication) back to 14 states and three FEMA regions. Having ministered alongside FEMA and the National Guard, Martinus has found that despite the physical distance required for pandemic-preparedness, chaplains are often met with a fresh openness to dialogue.
That openness often comes on the heels of being overwhelmed, as many of the medical care providers Martinus interacts with are unaccustomed to the volume of death they now experience.
“Having worked alongside healthy populations in the military, death at this scale is an unusual experience,” Martinus said.
Having pastored a local church for eight of his years as a full-time chaplain — which includes officiating over 300 military funerals — Martinus is no stranger to drawing near to hurting populations. Sometimes during COVID-19, drawing near meant debriefing with chaplains, doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers — providing spiritual care that cultivates a healthy inner life for those working amidst death.
“It’s very easy to pigeonhole what a chaplain does in the military,” said Lt. Col. Charles Calio, Martinus’ colleague in the National Guard. “But to be an effective chaplain, in my mind, you have to be down to earth and be a person who cares about other people regardless of faith or particular religious belief. You have to serve as an adviser to the commander about matters beyond religion. You have to know: are the troops too tired? Are they overworked? Is the commander making decisions not in the best interest of the troops? Brian is all of those things.”
Martinus’ effectiveness in shepherding has also helped other chaplains find their own voice in their units. Because he also supervises up to 27 people at any one time, equipping others for ministry is a central part of success for Martinus.
“Seeing other chaplains flourish in ministry is a really fulfilling part of this season,” said Martinus. “One of our Air Force chaplains at one of our hospitals in Fort Bliss, Texas, was a brand-new chaplain who’d only been in for six months. Before she came in, she was a journalist and news anchor at a TV station in Atlanta. I got the chance to meet her, talk with her religious support team and mentor her over a four-month period. One of the hospitals in Fort Bliss had a provider experiencing a lot of deaths, and she was there. Helping her process that and seeing her continue to provide good support for the airmen and airwomen she was assigned to in the hospital was a really special thing.”
Emotional and spiritual health — for families, servicemembers and patients — are daily realities for chaplains working alongside hospitals and vaccination centers. As Martinus continues to serve alongside COVID-19 relief, he asks that Wesleyans pray for strength, wisdom and endurance for both the military and their families during a time when many face extended separation due to service.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the hospitality, college and young adult pastor at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana.