Chaps

Autumn Wilson grew up in Eufaula, Alabama, a small town in Barbour County with a population of just over 10,000 people. A devout Christian, Autumn’s childhood was anything but easy. Raised by her grandparents who shielded Autumn from her mother’s addictions, Autumn watched them exhaust their financial resources to help her mother through rehab. After losing her grandfather, who was the local pastor, to cancer, Autumn chose a career in religion, hoping to emulate the positive influence he shared with his community. In this latest episode of Faces of the Fleet, we tell the story of LT Autumn Wilson and her journey from a small-town Alabama church to the pluralistic ministry of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps where she has found love, light and acceptance.

Eufaula, Alabama

Raised in Eufaula, Alabama, a town sitting on the Chattahoochee River between Alabama and Georgia, Autumn Wilson was born into a home fraught with challenges . Her mother struggled with addiction issues, and by the time she was eight years old, Autumn was in the legal custody of her grandparents. Being so young, Autumn did not fully understand her family’s struggles, her grandparents shielding her from them as best they could.

Her grandfather was pastor at the local African Methodist Episcopal Church and there, she found comfort and solace, hoping to find answers in a refuge from home.

“The center of our community was the church. My grandparents were highly revered members of the community, so we’d attend service every Sunday. Unfortunately, the church failed us,” Autumn said.

As Autumn grew older, she began to realize that her church wasn’t helping her confront the obstacles she was facing. Instead, the church swept her issues under the rug and projected a worldview of happiness, rather than reality. Her church’s way of combating her mother’s addiction was to pray about it, rather than to help her seek therapy. For Autumn, it wasn’t enough. She wanted action. While prayer felt good, it wasn’t the only solution to the bigger  issues in her life.

“I’m not dismissing the power of prayer, but I now understand that my mom needed more than just prayers,” Autumn adds.

Changing The Narrative

When Autumn’s grandfather passed away from cancer, she was devastated. Consumed by grief, she quickly realized that she was following in her mother’s footsteps. Once again, she turned to the church for help, but instead of offering mental health advice or grief counseling, her church again used the phrase, “If you pray then everything will be okay.” It still wasn’t enough for Autumn. That day she saw an opportunity to change the narrative of not just her life, but the lives of others like her.

“I wanted to change the story of my family and inspire them through religion. Instead of hoping my church could fix our problems, I knew I had the power to do that,” said Autumn.

Autumn decided to dedicate her life towards a more progressive approach to religion. For years, it was instilled in her that if someone didn’t share the same belief in Jesus as they did, Heaven was not an option.  Autumn believed this approach alienated people from one another, rather than bringing them closer together.

After graduating Auburn University, she continued her education at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA where she graduated with a Master’s of Divinity degree with a concentration in Ethics and Theology in 2012.

She quickly established herself as someone that was open-minded and empathetic to her community’s needs. She didn’t shun people for mental health issues or because their views didn’t fit the narrative of the church.

Inspired by her grandfather’s mission and beliefs as a pastor, she accepted her congregation with love.

“I just wanted to be like him, and more so, take on the same characteristics he had and the way he treated people and dealt with opposition. I was inspired by him wholeheartedly,” said Autumn.

A Pluralistic Ministry

After her aunt passed away unexpectedly, Autumn had a chance encounter with a Navy Chaplain who left a lasting impression on her. During their conversation, she learned about the idea of a pluralistic ministry and the Navy’s open-mindedness towards all faiths and religions.

“I loved the idea of pluralistic ministry and helping people from all walks of life. I just felt like that was my calling… that it was a ticket to leave Alabama and go adventure the world and learn all about different cultures that would make me a better pastor,” Autumn said.

In 2013, Autumn attended Officer Development School and joined the Navy Chaplain Corps. Tasked with meeting the spiritual and mental health needs for Sailors, Autumn was thrown in at the deep end when she learned her first station was in Japan. 

“I knew that I loved God and his children, but I didn’t like the way traditional churches behaved. The Navy gave me a platform to understand all religions, to get to know people from all walks of life,” Autumn reflected.

Autumn quickly found herself faced with people from all walks of life who offered an eclectic mix of culture, religion and heritage. In addition to providing worship, or performing religious rites, Autumn is a counsellor to Sailors who seek the guidance of Chaplains.  

“The mission of the Chaplain Corps is to support fellow service members during their most joyful moments and during their most challenging. It doesn’t matter what your skin color, your religion, your gender or your sexual orientation, we exist to take care of you,” Autumn continued. 

Offering A New Perspective

Now seven years into her Navy story, Autumn is using religion to help others grow and make them stronger; to make them realize that they are not alone. She reminds everyone she encounters that everyone is battling their own challenges.

“I try and remind them that they are not the only ones going through that. I can see the weight lifting when I tell them about my problems. I know what it’s like not to know who my dad is. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. I’ve been there so let’s talk about this. It’s okay that you feel this way. It’s okay to feel you’re not going to believe in Christianity right now. Relationships are not always perfect,” Autumn added.

Every day, Autumn counsels Sailors in need, helping them realize that even in the darkest moments of life, there is light. She’s teaching Christianity within a pluralistic ministry where all religions are welcome, and every voice is heard.

She often reminds herself of a saying in her church that goes something like, “What goes on in my house stays in my house.” But in the Navy, she approaches every problem that comes her way individually, taking the time to listen to each Sailor in need. She has realized the importance of  being authentic and what that truly means to lift your veil and speak honestly.

“The Navy has given me so much insight into life and people that I never would’ve got staying in my small town. I tell people like me who are in small towns like Eufaula, ‘let’s go to Six Flags and take the scariest ride, that’s what the Navy is, but it’s the best ticket you’ll ever buy,’” Autumn said.

Autumn’s Navy journey has helped rebuild her family back home in Eufaula. Together with her daughter Joy, she often visits her mom in Eufaula and her grandmother. Autumn draws on her experience working with diverse Sailors and brings this wisdom back home. No matter where Autumn goes to, she’s bringing light to those she meets.

 

Navy Chaplain Corps

The Navy Chaplain Corps boasts more than 800 Navy Chaplains from more than 100 different faith groups, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and many others. Each Chaplain is also a Navy Officer, meaning each holds an important leadership role. Chaplains offer everything from faith leadership, to personal advice, to much-needed solace – all while living up to the guiding principles of the Chaplain Mission:

– Providing religious ministry and support to those of your own faith

– Facilitating the religious requirements of those from all faiths

– Caring for all servicemembers and their families, including those subscribing to no specific faith

– Advising the command in ensuring the free exercise of religion

Navy Chaplains immerse themselves in the daily lives of servicemembers. In what can be best described as a ministry of presence, they are there to offer guidance and insight in the moment, whenever they’re needed. You could provide support while on land or at sea, when presiding over religious ceremonies on a base, or when conducting services from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

Visit Navy.com to watch other inspiring stories of Sailors.