When Rev Mark Dunn decided he wanted a challenge in life, he probably had no idea he would find himself preaching to more than 1000 people in the Solomon Islands.
At a time when some might consider coasting through the rest of their working days before retirement, the St John’s Essendon UC minister made the rather unlikely decision to join the Australian Army as a chaplain to the troops.
“I found myself thinking ‘how can I challenge myself and keep learning?’,” Mr Dunn said.
“I stumbled across the idea of defence service chaplaincy as a gift from God; it hadn’t really crossed my radar anywhere.
“Largely that is because in our synod, defence chaplaincy gets very little airtime. That’s probably driven by a theological and political agenda that leans towards pacifism and says anything defence is bad.
“So, as I’ve often done in my life, I went against the flow and thought ‘let’s check this out’.”
‘Checking out’ the idea led to a month at the Royal Military College Duntroon, where chaplains – who are commissioned with the rank of Captain within the army – must learn the how-to of army life alongside other specialists like teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and journalists.
This included lessons on how to wear the uniform, who to salute and understanding the chain of command.
Along with the rules of army life were practical skills such as bush survival, first aid, handling and firing weapons and military law.
Mr Dunn was commissioned as a reservist chaplain on 22 June 2009. His first posting was to the light cavalry unit: 4th/19th Prince of Wales Light Horse Regiment. Since the start of 2013 he has been attached to the 5th/6th Battalion of the Royal Victoria Regiment – an infantry unit.
“To keep the rumour of God alive in that sort of context for me is both a challenge and a rich opportunity as I walk in the footsteps of previous military chaplains who have served now for 100 years.
“This year earmarks the centenary of defence force chaplaincy. Defence has a huge respect and values greatly the place of the Padre in our navy, army, and air force.
“So there’s that sense of picking up the baton and taking my turn to run with it and being entrusted with this enormous regard the defence force has.
“I have found it to be a very life-giving opportunity to exercise ministry mostly to a younger culture and within an organisation which knows, sometimes better than the church, what it wants from a chaplain,” Mr Dunn said. “It is historically, a male oriented organisation, but thankfully that is changing.”
Mr Dunn is currently serving with peacekeepers as part of an Australian led combined taskforce based in the Solomon Islands. He says he has enjoyed 100 per cent support from his St John’s Church Council who released him to undertake this opportunity – and who have upheld him in prayer. While he says it has been difficult being away from his family –“this four months is the longest Jan and I have been separated in 38 years of marriage” – he has been fortunate to experience some once-in-a-lifetime events.
“Anzac day was a big highlight, leading the service downtown with 170 soldiers from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Australia, a similar number of police and about 100 civilians. It’s quite a buzz to lead an Anzac day service when you are on deployment.
Another highlight, flowing out of the six-week ‘Faith Under Fire’ course Mr Dunn ran has been the impending baptism of a female signals corporal.
“I had my final preparation session with her and three others who I have seconded as would-be elders to support her. It’s a really significant decision for a young woman who is a leader to make that choice, to say she wants to be baptised and follow Jesus. Her testimony brought us to tears, so her baptism will be a pretty powerful moment.”
Army chaplains must provide ecumenical ministry to the troops, and this has been one of the most satisfying aspects of the role for Mr Dunn. As he explains, his years of involvement with inter-faith ministry have stood him in good stead with some of the soldiers.
“We have one Jewish member and one Muslim member who are both privates on this rotation. As it happens they are roommates and get on like a house on fire.
“They are both actively pursuing their faith journey so I’ve been able to assist the Jewish member with some resources through the only Jewish rabbi chaplain I know, Rabbi Gutnick.
“And when the Muslim member observed holy Ramadan, I supported him to look for a way to maintain his religious practice.
“He was given an exemption to be allowed to grow a beard during Ramadan and he was able to fast during daylight hours for his observance.”
As he comes to the end of his time in the Solomon Islands, as well as the obvious excitement of catching up with family, it is the simple things Mr Dunn is looking forward to.
“We’re given really terrific food in the mess, but at the end of the day it’s about reloading fuel and then getting out of the way so that somebody else can come in and take that spot. A casual meal runs for 15 minutes. So I’m looking forward to the normality of eating a meal over a nice glass of red and being able to take my time – not being on duty 24/7.”