Lt.-Col. Angela James serves as a Chaplain at CFB Esquimalt. Here she stands next to her favourite panel of stained glass at the base chapel, which shows an exerpt from “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The hymn is often read to navy personnel. Nicole Crescenzi/VICTORIA NEWS

Breaking boundaries: Canadian woman serves the military and God

There are only 235 chaplains in regular Canadian forces. Forty are women.

In a heritage office at the CFB Esquimalt sits a woman who is anything but traditional.

Lt.-Col. Angela James wears a pressed blue uniform that might see her pass for any other Royal Canadian Airforce member, except for a silver cross pinned to the right side of her shirt. While her uniform reads “James,” she is known more commonly by another name: Padre.

While some female chaplains might fight for a more feminist version of the name, she is happy being called Padre, the Latin word for father.

“I like to be mindful that there are many people who fought in the wars and reached out for the Padre, and asked for their support,” she says. “To know that that heritage was there, and that people reached out with that word and called for help, makes me think that I stand on the shoulders of those people. And I never forget the history of those who’ve gone before me.”

James grew up in London, Ont. in a family devoted to the United Church. She recalls helping her father set up a sound system in their church so sermons could be recorded and sent out to people unable to attend. While she initially never intended to work for the Church, she says God gave her direction that prompted her to attain a Master of Divinity through Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. She later worked in the North, then enlisted in the military.

At first it was not easy to convince the United Church, which focuses on pacifism, to allow her to join the armed forces, James says.

“One of the key things is chaplains do not carry weapons in the Canadian Armed Forces, that’s how I could reconcile that,” she says. “I don’t hold judgment on anyone who does, but those people are doing a difficult job and need someone to hold the hand that holds the sword.”

When asked how she could condone a military member’s legal right to take a life, James says it has taken a lot of reflection.

“I am grateful for people who will stand and do something that I am not capable of doing.

“I see that once in a while these things have to be done, and I’m wanting to make sure that for those folks that have the gifts and skills to do it, that they also have the spiritual resiliency to face what they’re facing.”

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As a chaplain, James isn’t neutral when it comes to the opinions of her military, but her services are available to anyone who needs them, regardless of faith or nationality. That can result in chaplains being called across borders to serve prisoners of war or even enemies.

“The insight and guidance of Padre James enriches the lives of everyone within Maritime Forces Pacific. Chaplains serve at the crux of the Canadian Armed Forces by tending to the moral and spiritual needs of military personnel and their families during times of conflict and peace,” says Capt. Jason Boyd, CFB Esquimalt base commander.

“Padre James embodies that dedication to care. Whenever I get the privilege and pleasure to hear her speak, her words always inspire me and give me cause to reflect.”

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As a female chaplain, she is part of a small group. In the Canadian Armed Forces there are 68,000 serving members, of which 15 per cent are women. Of the 235 padres in the regular forces, 17 per cent are women.

Despite the fact she stands out, James says she’s never faced any problems in the military, and actually feels safer and more welcome than in her civilian life. She also notes that sometimes being a woman has an advantage.

She recalls a time serving in Bosnia, where long-time military members who’d seen a lot of war and genocide came to her to share their experiences for the first time and shed tears.

“They would often say ‘I feel like I can do this because you’re a woman and I don’t have to be tough,’” she says. “That’s not always the ideal, we want to believe that people are equal across the board. But at that moment, the way that God had set it up in this form … I thought, what a gift.”

James is always pushing for more equality and hopes her two sons don’t think twice about it as they grow up.

“My hope is that that 17 per cent continues to increase in all trades, so by the time my boys look at the world they can see all the things they can do,” she says.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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