The Warrior’s Companion

March 30, 2016
Cynthia Kane
Rev. Cynthia Kane, MDiv '96, has been a U.S. Navy chaplain since 2001. / Photo: Courtesy Cynthia Kane

The Rev. Cynthia Kane, MDiv '96, says that her ministry is a lot like any other. She is a companion and guide to people with diverse backgrounds and experiences and helps them address questions of morality, faith, spirituality, and ethics.

In many ways, though, Kane's work as a Unitarian Universalist chaplain in the United States Navy is different. Push her to describe it, and she passes on the words of the commanding general in her first unit:

"He told me, 'Chaps, my job is to kill people,' " Kane remembers. " 'Your job is to keep me from liking it.' "

Kane, a pacifist, has carried this charge with her to her assignments at Arlington National Cemetery, Guantanamo Bay, two Navy aircraft carriers, two Marine units, and the Coast Guard. In each tour, she works to nurture the hearts and souls of men and women who sometimes need to sequester their spiritual lives in order to do their jobs. For this work, the Harvard Divinity School Alumni/Alumnae Council will recognize Kane this April as a 2016 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.

"I remember Rev. Gomes as intimidating, colorful, an expectation defier, and a noble exemplar of the preacher-pastor-prophet-parson," she says. "I feel privileged and blessed to be a 2016 Honoree."

Indeed, there's some amount of serendipity in the award for Kane, who says that Gomes was at the center of a transformational experience she had while at HDS. The year was 1991. The conservative undergraduate magazine Peninsula depicted an exploding pink triangle on its cover and ran several stories critical of homosexuality, calling it "a bad alternative" to heterosexuality. The issue incited protests, including one at which Gomes, a self-identified conservative, revealed that he was gay. Kane calls Gomes' speech that day "electrifying."

"He risked his career in his standing to speak his truth," she says. "In so doing, he helped turn the tide of public opinion, not only at Harvard, but throughout the nation. His example was a lesson in courage and holiness that reverberated throughout my life."

Kane has had ample opportunity to draw on Gomes' example of courage in the 25 years since that day. She was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma the day after she graduated from HDS in June 1996. Her oncologist gave her a 10 percent chance of surviving as long as a year. But where many might have been overwhelmed by fear and despair, Kane focused on her hopes for the future.

"It became very important to me to have children," she says, "that I wanted the full experience of bearing and delivering a child. That’s what I focused on."

Miraculously, Kane recovered. (She is now the mother of three and has been cancer free for nearly 20 years.) She had been on the cusp of a career as a Navy chaplain before her diagnosis. After treatment, she reapplied to the Navy several times before she was finally accepted in April 2001 and commissioned that August. For Kane, it was a chance to answer the call both to ministry and to service.

"I was eight years old when I was in worship and had something like a premonition of myself at the pulpit looking out at the congregation," she explains. "Then, during my college sophomore year in New Orleans, my boyfriend and I drove to Panama City, Florida, and stopped at the Pensacola Navy base to visit a friend of ours. As soon as I stepped on base, I had the same feeling as when I was a child in church: 'This is where I'm supposed to be. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.' "

Cynthia Kane flag presenation
Kane during a flag presentation at Arlington National Cemetery. / Photo: Courtesy Cynthia Kane

Some of Kane's military assignments over the past 15 years have been prestigious, such as Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of servicemen and women. Others might even be considered as posh, such as when she was stationed with a marine unit in Hawaii, where she and her family were able to celebrate Christmas twice with President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Kane describes as "very stressful," however, her experience with the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) in Washington, DC, as well as at the Joint Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Before leaving CBRIF in 2004, the deadly toxin ricin was discovered at a Senate office building in Washington, D.C.

"I recall getting in the protective gear and thinking, 'I really hope these suits do their job because I plan on having children!' "

Kane downplays the incident at CBIRF, as well as her time in Guantanamo Bay, and says that her ministry focuses largely on being a companion to those who feel called to serve their country in the military, especially young adults.

She bristles at the idea that she's some kind of a "mole" trying to "inject a pacifist virus into the military machine." Kane says, "For those of us in the armed forces, questions about life and death are front and center in our minds and hearts." Her job is to be their companion through that process.

"I've heard many war stories about [service members'] experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korean, even World War II," she says. "There's a necessity in being able to share those stories…I am here learning, serving, and wrestling with tough life-and-death questions in the same way that the people to whom I minister are. I companion them. And they, unknowingly companion me."

Kane says that she's encountered no hostility about her beliefs or her religion from service members. Actually, it has been quite the opposite. Kane's background allows her to companion the growing number of people who identify and "nones," no-religious-preference, and "spiritual but not religious." That's good news, because, while she looks forward to a long career in the Navy, she also has no intention of watering down who she is and what she stands for.

"I am here being exactly who I am," she says. "I'm a God-loving Unitarian Universalist; a disciplined and logistically-minded Naval officer; a peace oriented, conscientious-objecting pacifist; and a yoga practicing, Zazen meditating, tree hugging, Prius driving spouse and parent. I am a part of things. And the people I work with are a part of me."

—by Paul Massari