By Holly McCray
Far from his home conference, Chaplain Marty Barnes of Oklahoma sought to comfort the military couple at a hospital in Rome, Italy.
The distance was unimportant. His God and his Church family are always with him—in his heart. That certainty carried him forward to minister in this crisis.
A baby was near death.
A U.S. Air Force couple had traveled to Rome for a weekend. The woman, 23 weeks pregnant, had given birth while there. The baby was on life support. In an unfamiliar hospital, unable to speak the language, the couple struggled to cope.
From Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy, Barnes and his commander rode a train to Rome. During the six-hour trip, the chaplain ministered to the military leader, brand-new to the country and to the role of commander, now also a caregiver to the couple.
Upon arriving at the hospital, they learned the couple had just been told the baby would not live. Yet medical law required doctors to maintain minimum life support.
"We’re ministering to the couple in the middle of all that," Rev. Barnes said.
He learned the couple had neither named nor been able to touch their baby.
So Barnes talked to the parents about baptizing the child. He explained that infant baptism "is a gift, in our Methodist faith and understanding, a sacrament we can give."
Although the couple’s faith background differed, "in that moment, they understood," Barnes explained. "They said yes."
The little group moved to the room where the baby was incubated.
"The hospital had never allowed a minister to do this," Barnes said. "We didn’t know how it was going to be received." Medical personnel awaited them.
God was there, too. And Barnes experienced "the power of that Presence to move all these people."
Doctors and nurses opened the incubator and gave the baby to the mother to hold for the baptism. They gave Barnes sterile water to use, in a metal bowl he has kept.
"Everybody was participating," Barnes marveled. "If you could have seen the acrobatics these medical people took, around these wires and hoses, to put this baby in this mother’s arms … and then leave us alone to let it happen. Through that baptism, all of them risked to let that mother hold the baby, let the father help me baptize." And the couple named the child.
"That’s the kind of moment when, as a chaplain, I go: This is why I am here," Barnes said.
He told this story while attending the 2011 Annual Conference in Oklahoma City. The interview was punctuated by greetings from his Church family. A joyous Barnes responded, "You’re never out of my mind."
"Right now, I see all these faces and I remember that moment," he said. "I look at these people and I go, ‘You were there. You were with me because you nurtured, believed, affirmed, and corrected me’" as he has journeyed in ministry.
He unfolded a list of names he was compiling during the conference as he reconnected with clergy and laity who have been instrumental in his life.
"Extension Ministry: it’s what we do, we extend the Church into the world," Barnes said. "But while we’re extended, oftentimes the connection to home gets stretched."
Military chaplaincy requires sudden assignment shifts. Thus Barnes treasured his time at Annual Conference. His attendance this year was possible only because he was en route to training in San Antonio, Texas, before deployment to Saudi Arabia.
During that deployment Barnes’ wife, Mandy, will remain in Italy with their youngest children, Malin and Martin Aaron. Two adult children, Aaron and Matthew, live stateside. Barnes is in his 30th year with the Air Force, including service in the Air National Guard.
The Barneses moved to Oklahoma in 1993. OKC-Quail Springs church was their first connection to the Oklahoma Conference. He was ordained as an elder in 2005.
Via the worldwide Web, you can contact U.S. Air Force Chaplain Capt. Martin Barnes. He welcomes connecting with his faith family. Due to security reasons, he cannot always share specific prayer requests.