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Serving in the middle

Rev. Travis Ferguson remembers well the morning his ministry radically changed direction.

It was Aug. 16, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and the U.S. Air Force chaplain was facing the opening wave of a flood of refugees from Afghanistan, fleeing their crumbling nation and the threat of Taliban rule. Ferguson and his fellow airmen were hurriedly preparing to house, feed and process what would become tens of thousands of Afghans at a base that was never expected to handle even a single refugee.

At the morning staff meeting, he was asked to help set up cots in one of the hangars. Walking into the cavernous structure, he found some 800 frightened faces staring back at him.
“I remember one of the first kids who came up to me, asking for shoes,” Ferguson recalls. “Stupid me, I asked how he lost his shoes. He said he lost them while running from the Taliban.”

It was the sort of moment — and there were many others like it — that drove home the stark reality of the situation. And it gave Ferguson a chance to examine his own role in the world.

Just a couple hours earlier, he’d given a pep talk to members of the civil engineer squadron, urging them to appreciate the difference they’d soon be making in so many lives. He recalled for them a passage from the Book of Esther, suggesting that perhaps they had been put in Qatar “for such a time as this.”

Spiritual pillar

Ferguson’s own journey to that air base started after he graduated from high school and attended Concordia University, Nebraska, Seward. From there he came to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where he graduated in 2017 with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.).

After graduation, the Kansas City, Mo., native served as an associate pastor at Grace Lutheran in Knoxville, Tenn. In 2019, he was called to Christ Lutheran Church Ministries in La Mesa, Calif., where he is an associate pastor, but on leave through February while he serves overseas.

Throughout his spiritual journey, Ferguson, 30, has maintained his commitment to the U.S. Air Force, having joined its chaplain candidate program in 2014. As a reservist, he spends a weekend each month and a few weeks each year on drills. But last summer, he was called to active duty with the 940th Air Refueling Wing at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California and sent to the Middle East.

The responsibilities of a chaplain are broad. Chaplains protect the First Amendment rights of military personnel, making certain they are able to practice their religion freely. They are the only members of the armed services who offer a 100% confidential listening ear. But most importantly, they help these fighting men and women cope with the stresses of military life.

It’s a role that he cherishes.

“We bring people out here for six months. We take away the comforts of home. We take away their family. We add heat. And then you add the probability that one of our adversaries is going to pop off at some point. That’s a lot of stress,” Ferguson says. “So, my goal has always been to make sure that people can lean on that spiritual pillar in their life to make sure they can make it through these situations.”

The messiness of ministry

No matter how much a person might prepare for life, it will throw curveballs now and again. For Ferguson and his fellow service members at Al Udeid Air Base, that curveball turned out to be 57,000 Afghan refugees.

Rev. Travis Ferguson helps set up a cot for an Afghan refugee at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Ferguson credits his education at Concordia Seminary for helping him develop the tools needed to cope with the crisis. His favorite classes were those dealing with practical theology and the importance of listening and being empathetic to others. But perhaps most valuable was the emphasis on critical thinking.

“We were doing things as chaplains we had never done before, that no book tells us how to do,” he says.

That Ferguson would succeed in such a trying situation comes as no surprise to Dr. Mark Rockenbach, associate professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary.

He remembers Ferguson as a “go-getter kind of guy” with a heart for ministry and a focus on finding creative ways to help people. And he’s enjoying watching his former student apply critical thinking skills in such a real-world scenario.

“When you are in those kinds of ministry settings you have to have flexibility. Things aren’t always going to go the way you think they should go,” Rockenbach says. “You’ve got to be OK with the messiness of ministry. Good pastors and chaplains realize that it’s in the middle of that messiness that you serve the best and you have many opportunities to share Christ.”

It’s difficult to imagine a messier situation than the one presented to Ferguson and his fellow service members. They scrambled to meet the refugee influx, using whatever resources they could cobble together. Members of the U.S. Air Force offered up clothes from their own closets and secured food from a variety of sources. A large warehouse was emptied and converted to living quarters.

Rev. Travis Ferguson carries a young refugee at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
“You look as far as the eye can see and you have people who are hurting and asking questions about their families,” Ferguson says. “And there’s nothing you can do other than smile. A lot of time was spent trying to hand out food and bottles of water.”

There is another encounter that stands out in his memories. He was walking among the refugees in the hangar when he came across a father holding a crying child in his arms. Ferguson reached into his own pocket and handed over a bottle of apple juice he’d been waiting to drink. The cries stopped immediately.

He struck up a conversation with the grateful father, who was happy to hear that Ferguson had children of his own. Surely it helped the chaplain understand the difficulty of the situation, the man suggested. But Ferguson shook his head.

“I said, ‘Actually, I can’t. I have no idea what you are going through. I have never had to run for my life before. I’ve never had just the clothes on my back,’” he recalls.

Going home

Soon, Ferguson will return to civilian life and his role as associate pastor at his California church. He’s thrilled at the prospect of seeing his wife, Amy, and their two children, ages 3 years and 7 months.

But he also wonders about what it will be like to immerse himself once again in the day-to-day operations of a parish far removed from what he just witnessed. “The greater mission of the church is to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” he says. “There is part of me that is worried that I will not have the patience when I get back to being a pastor again and having to deal with some things that now seem a bit trivial. Every day I’m praying the Holy Spirit can fix that in me.”

What he does know is that the experience has changed his perspective on the world and brought elements of his faith into crystal clear focus. Perhaps nothing says it better than the words of Matt. 25:35-36a ESV: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me.”

“That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be,” Ferguson says. “I don’t think that came alive for me until this.”

Tim Barker is an Orlando, Fla.-based freelance writer.
Photos Courtesy Rev. Travis Ferguson.

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