THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Adrian Walker

A mission of the spirit

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / March 28, 2011

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First Lieutenant James Hairston shipped out to Afghanistan last night, along with nearly 700 other members of the First Battalion, 182d Infantry Regiment, who bid farewell in a ceremony at Boston College.

The setting may have been incidental for most of the soldiers, but it held special resonance for Hairston, a chaplain who came of age in Chestnut Hill. He is a 2006 graduate of BC, and both his theological and military ambitions took shape there. Indeed, the college offered to host the ceremony partly out of lingering affection among BC brass for the charismatic Hairston, who, like most of his unit, will be seeing his first active duty.

Hairston, 28, grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester, an only child raised by a single mother but surrounded by extended family. He chose to attend Snowden International School, rather than one of the city’s exam schools, because he thought they were too big and impersonal. At Snowden he flourished — “I was president or vice president of almost every club I was in,’’ he says — before making his way to the Heights, a devout Baptist among Jesuits.

He loved it, partly because he first felt a calling to the ministry as a 12-year-old and was terrified by it “because of the warped perspective I had of the ministry,’’ he said.

“I thought you had to be incredibly holy — that you couldn’t sin, not once, that if you messed up, then you would fall from grace. Going to BC helped to lighten that up for me. Meeting all the priests there, one of the things I learned was that God called you to be you, and that you don’t have to transform yourself into this image that everyone expects you to be.’’

By the time he was leaving college, Hairston knew he was drawn to the military — largely for its structure and discipline — as well as to the pulpit. In fact, he strongly considered enlisting in the Marine Corps as an infantryman, before several professors talked him out of it. Instead, he earned master’s degrees at Lesley University and Andover Newton Theological School, while serving in the Army National Guard. That decision has paid off — allowing him to serve in the military as a chaplain rather than a soldier.

As with most soldiers, the start of Hairston’s one-year deployment has not been easy for his family. His wife of one year has been talking to the wives of other military chaplains, trying to get a better handle on what he will experience. His mother has been stoic, though he sees worry behind her calm exterior.

“It’s something that’s incredibly rough, without a doubt,’’ he said. “I’ve been as upfront as I can be — without violating my secret clearances — about what I’ll be doing,’’ he said of conversations with his wife.

Saving souls is a daunting task in the best of times, and performing ministry in a war zone promises to be challenging. “I look at my job as making sure I’m able to provide the moral perspective and the ethical perspective to my commanders, as well as the spiritual perspective to my soldiers,’’ he said. “I keep that as the central piece, as opposed to wondering what the political pundits are saying on television.’’

In a sense, his goal is both simple and profound. He said he wants to remind the troops in his care that they remain in God’s presence. “I want to remind them that God is watching over you — as you’re missing your family, as you’re missing your friends, as you’re watching your best friend die in front of you,’’ he said. “That God is there with you for that comfort.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.