With Darren Duncan at the Air Force Academy
Phil Whipple, Bishop, US National Conference
On June 20, I visited Chaplain Major Darren Duncan at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Spring. Darren is in his fourth year serving as a chaplain there. He met me at the gate and took me to the chapel.
Darren started out at Living Word United Brethren church in Columbus, Ohio, serving on staff and then as senior pastor. He did some chaplaincy work in the Reserves for a few years, and then was approached about going fulltime. He went on active duty in the spring of 2003. Since then, he has served in several locations, including at an “undisclosed location” in early 2004.
The Air Force Academy is a prestigious posting, and looks good on your resume if you’re looking to climb the military ladder. Usually, the Air Force moves you every two or three years, so this is an extra-long posting for Darren. The Wing Commander, who oversees the religious programs at the Air Force Academy, was asked to stay one more year before retiring, and he didn’t want to break in anybody new during his last year. So, Darren was asked to stay an extra year.
In the past, the United Brethren denomination has been the endorsing entity for military chaplains from UB churches. That is changing. The National Association of Evangelicals, of which we are one of many denominations, is now the endorsing organization for UB chaplains, and there are some advantages to that.
As it turns out, Darren is in the process of switching his ministerial credentials to the Anglican Church. They are an evangelical church in doctrine, but more liturgy based. However, I caught up with Darren while he was still under the United Brethren umbrella.
The Air Force Chapel, completed in 1962, was designed to accommodate all faiths in the same building. The building is impressive from a distance, and even more impressive inside. If you are traveling through Colorado Springs, you should stop to tour the chapel.
On the ground level is the 1200-seat Protestant sanctuary, where two services are held each Sunday—a contemporary service, and a liturgical/traditional service. The platform has a divided chancel, with an elevated pulpit on one side and a lectern on the other. In the back is a massive pipe organ, with over 4300 pipes, and a choir loft. The organist, I was told, has a doctorate in classical organ and has been playing there for about 30 years, rarely missing. This is not an organ that just anyone can sit down and play.
The Protestant sanctuary has held as many as 2000 people. However, about 50 cadets typically attend the liturgical/traditional service and about 150 attend the contemporary service. Visitors can attend, too, so the attendance may include more non-cadets than cadets.
All cadets have the freedom to attend church in town on Sunday, so many of them leave the base. The first-year students, called “doolies,” only get a few passes a year to leave the base, but they can leave every Sunday to attend church, so most take advantage of that opportunity. In addition, each cadet has a sponsoring family in the community, so many cadets go to church with them.
Darren took me down a flight of stairs to the Catholic sanctuary, which is probably half the size of the Protestant sanctuary and seats 500. It has a smaller pipe organ (a mere 1950 pipes). Around the outer walls are pictures of the 14 Stations of the Cross, with a little bit of local Colorado Springs landscape tossed in.
Down one more level is the Jewish synagogue, a round room (to resemble a tent) which seats 100. On the outside walls are paintings depicting Old Testament stories, and those pictures have been valued at $2 million each.
In addition, there is a Muslim prayer room, and a Buddhist room. You must remove your shoes to enter the Buddhist room. It’s a very plain room, with just pillows on the floor for kneeling.
They have one more room called the All Faiths Room, which has no religious symbolism. If you haven’t been covered in the other areas, this room is for you.
Then, outside high on a hill, is a circle of stones called Falcon Circle, designed for followers of Earth-based faiths, such as pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches, and Native Americans. Falcon Circle was dedicated in 2011.
The 2011-2012 cadets included 11 Muslims, 16 Buddhists, 10 Hindus, 3 followers of Earth-based religions, and 43 self-identified atheists.
Each chapel has its own entrance, and services can be held in each chapel simultaneously without interfering with the others.
The Air Force Academy is committed to providing counsel to any of their cadets, whatever their faith may be. There are cadets from numerous other countries. It’s not easy for an American to be admitted to the Air Force Academy, and no less so for foreigners; only the best and the brightest may enroll. Darren showed me a map with probably 100 pins stuck in it, representing where the cadets were from. That’s 100 cadets out of the total student body of 4000, so it’s a small percentage. They bring in about 1000 new cadets each year.
Darren is a very sharp guy who is well respected by his peers. He seemingly fits naturally into military life, and has risen through the ranks. The Wing Commander, a colonel, has two men serving directly under him. Darren is one of those guys, so he’s at a fairly high level. He has 13 chaplains and support persons under his command.
Serving at the Air Force Academy is a prominent posting. To this point, Darren has had just one overseas deployment. He told me he will need to have another one.
I’m impressed with Darren, and enjoyed spending time with him and seeing the Air Force Academy Chapel.