News>Path of prayer leads chaplain, priest to Keesler
Chaplain Close briefs a room full of incoming students at the Levitow Training Support Facility on the various worship services they will find both on and off base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
Surrounded by icons, candles and incense, Father Stefan Close, aka Chaplain Henry Close, prepares to read the Gospel at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Biloxi
where he serves as priest. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
by Steve Hoffmann
81st Training Wing Public Affairs
1/27/2011 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Many of us have interests or hobbies outside our work life, passionate pursuits that motivate us. But often they are merely a hat that we wear from time to time that only a select few know about. But Chaplain (Maj.) Henry Close wears his like a robe, literally, and is even known by a different name, Father Stefan Close, priest of Holy Trinity Greek
Orthodox Church in Biloxi.
"Henry was the name I was born with," Chaplain Close explained. "But when I became a priest, as a way to mark the transition, I was given a new name." And in 2009, Holy Trinity was given a new priest.
"It really was a blessing that just happened, an answer to prayer," said Chaplain Close about coming to Keesler and finding Holy Trinity.
"I was in Iraq when we learned of my assignment to Keesler," he recalled. "We knew nothing about this area. My wife began to ask around and got stories about hurricanes and horrible weather, alligators, snakes and cockroaches.
"But when we got here, we found the weather was actually quite nice," he continued. "The housing was brand new and the base had a good ministry attached to it. People actually drive 35 miles an hour down the main road, they're friendly, the food is really good and we're right on the water. It doesn't get any better than that!"
Chaplain Close arrived at Keesler in the summer of 2009. At that time there were only four Orthodox chaplains in the Air Force.
"I really thought I was going to have to start something from scratch,"explained Chaplain Closewhen faced with that reality."So I prayed."
It just so happened that there was a Greek Orthodoxchurch just a few miles offbase. It also just so happened that when Chaplain Close went to church on the Sunday after he arrived, he learned they had been without a priest for almost a year. He spoke with his bishop and checked with his boss and the next thing he knew, a whole community of believers came to
know Chaplain Henry Close as Father Stefan Close.
"It saved me from having to reinvent the wheel here," explained Chaplain Close on finding Holy Trinity. "Now our students can have a real church, with real little ol' grandmas, coffee, cookies and a choir."
Every Sunday, Chaplain Close picks up a handful of students from base and takes them to church. Attendance at Holy Trinity has doubled over the past year, and church members enjoy a vibrant community experience with youth activities, pastry sales and an annual Greek Festival.
Chaplain Close volunteers his time at Holy Trinity free of charge and received an award last year from the city of Biloxi for his services.
"But I am adamant about having them prepare for the time when I have to leave," said Chaplain Close. "They know I won't be here for long so I told them to start praying and start saving their nickels and dimes so that when the next guy comes, he won't have to worry about a year's salary."
This same search for selfless compassion and caring for the next guy was the motivation that began Chaplain Close's Christian journey.
"In high school, I didn't see much love going around. I wanted love. I wanted to see more of it, but didn't really know where to find it," explained Chaplain Close. "Then someone said, 'Turn to Jesus, that's where love is.' I did and it changed my heart forever. It wasn't 'Kaboom!' But after a while, I started to notice I wasn't as mean as I used to be and I thought, 'This is helping me. I want to live this way.'
"I was sort of a Jesus freak kind of guy when I was in college," Chaplain Close recounted. "I really loved doing mission work. I worked with drug addicts and alcoholics. I spent time in Chicago, New York and Amsterdam and began to feel a call to combine my new Christian commitment with community."
Chaplain Close was in Amsterdam when he found what he was looking for.
"I spoke Russian and there was a Russian Orthodox church in town," Chaplain Close explained. "Unfortunately, the whole service was in Dutch. I didn't understand a word of it. So I just prayed, 'OK, God, what do you want me to get out of this?'
"When I opened my eyes, everyone was standing and I saw that God was being honored," he remembered. "It was beautiful. I saw the icons all around and the candles and the procession of the scriptures. I heard the choir and could smell the incense. With my head, I didn't understand a word of what was going on. But my heart was melting and I knew this was the place where I needed to be."
"Pray for this man" was the instruction written on a poster underneath a picture of an imprisoned Russian Sunday school teacher that Chaplain Close saw when he walked by the bulletin board in college.
"So I did, right there," Chaplain Close said. "I thought, here is a guy who could hardly possess a Bible, much less have resource to an education and he was teaching Sunday School so faithfully that he got himself imprisoned. I prayed, 'What can I do about this?' 'Prepare' was the tangible response I received."
And so he did -- for seminary. He was ordained and serving at a church in Montreal, Canada, when he received his next assignment from God.
"There was a priest in the Reserves who knew of an active-duty guy who had just retired," explained Chaplain Close. "He thought I would be good at it. He was right. I've been in the Air Force now for 16 years."
Chaplain Close was serving at Ramstein Air Base in Germany during the height of the Iraq war. And like so many other times before, he found himself in a position where all he could do was pray.
"Medevac flights would arrive from the battlefield early in the morning in the fog and snow," Chaplain Close described with a hushed voice. "When they dropped the tail, I would be one of the first ones on. The guys who were in the worst shape would be at the tail end so they could be the first ones off."
Tears welled up in his eyes as he continued.
"They were all sedated. Some of them still had dirt and grass on them and they were covered with machinery and medical personnel trying to keep them going. And there wasn't a thing I could do except stand there and pray. Those times were such holy, holy moments."
Chaplain Close's office is at the Fishbowl Student Ministry Center where he spends most of his time doing what he describes as 'basic chaplain stuff.'
"Students will come in and need a person to talk to," he said. "Whether it's 'I'm stressed out from class,' or 'I flunked this class,' or 'I'm a failure,' or 'my girlfriend is breaking up with me'--they just need someone who'll listen. Most of it isn't religious. But sometimes we'll just pray."