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Chaplain ends 8-year journey, achieves calling

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer
  • 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Air Force Chaplain Capt. Kristi Hopp took her place at the Peoria Civic Center theater for a special moment June 6. The teacher, counselor, elder and officer was a woman of many skill sets, all which led up to that night. Three reverends - her husband, a mentor, and a church leader - joined Hopp on stage to bless her final steps of becoming an ordained minister.

The ceremony marked the end of her 8-year journey of faith and convictions, and the beginning of a new one as a United Methodist Church pastor. For Hopp, a chaplain at the 182nd Airlift Wing, her adventure began with never wanting to become a minister in the first place.

"Being a pastor's kid, you see everything, good and bad," she said.

Hopp knew firsthand the life she would be walking into if she became a pastor like her father, so she instead chose to study biology and chemistry at the University of Maryland in August 2000 in order become a doctor.

"I was studying that because I was interested in healing," she said.

Hopp felt her grades were good, but not good enough for medical school, so she earned her education degree and became a middle and high school biology and chemistry teacher. She found teaching to be a rewarding experience and enjoyed building up the school's science lab from scratch.

However, she still felt a specific tug on her heart the entire time - a calling to serve the Lord full-time in some way.

Her desire to be a healer was still there. She also wanted to be able to mentor her students, but the academic environment made that difficult. Hopp's sister, a seminary student, encouraged her to check out her college's counseling program. Hopp kept pushing the idea away. She wanted to be a science teacher, not a pastor.

Then a student came into Hopp's life, and that changed things.

The girl had been sexually assaulted by a family member, and the school - lacking a counselor on staff - brought the girl to Hopp for a caring ear to listen. Her heart went out to the girl, and Hopp realized she needed more training in order to help.

At the same time, Hopp was also working with her church's youth, and the church leadership took notice. They encouraged her to reconsider joining the ministry. Between the urging of her sister and her church, Hopp surrendered and applied to the Methodist Theological School in Ohio in August 2005, part-time so that she could continue teaching.

The graduate school was impressed with Hopp's background and offered her a complete scholarship. The only condition was that she would have to attend school full-time, which would mean leaving her teaching job.

Maybe all the arrows pointing to this new direction were coincidence, maybe they weren't. Hopp, however, saw it with clarity. She took it in faith that God was opening up all the doors and that she was just going to have to walk through them. She enrolled in August 2005 and began two master's degrees, one in divinity and one in counseling.

At the Methodist Theological School in Ohio she met a retired brigadier general, Dr. Vergel L. Lattimore, who became her mentor and academic advisor. During one of their many lunches together, he asked what she thought about doing an internship with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He knew she had an interest in post-traumatic stress disorder, and a friend had just told him of a need at the VA hospital in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

"At that point I wasn't thinking about going in uniform, I wasn't thinking about becoming a chaplain," said Hopp. "I was thinking that oh, that'd be a great experience, I'd be able to work with people who have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder and see if I like this population."

She took the internship at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which specialized in neurological behavioral health issues such as drug and alcohol treatment, PTSD and dementia, in January 2009. She worked closely with the military chaplains there, and they encouraged her to consider military service. After putting prayer into the opportunity, Hopp decided that becoming an active duty Army chaplain was the way to go.

Just before the application process was finished, Hopp met Chaplain (Maj.) Jonathan Bell of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, who told her about the mission and benefits of the Air Force's reserve component. Hopp was planning to focus on her career instead of marriage and children, but saw how both could be viable through the Air National Guard.

She called on her old mentor, Vergel Lattimore, for advice. It was then she learned that the service the brigadier general had retired from was, in fact, the Air National Guard.

"And I meet with him, and he says, 'It's your choice. At this point in your life, you can go both ways. And one is not better than the other, but it's your choice with what you really, really want in life,'" she said.

She spent the four-week Advent season in December 2009 praying about her choice and decided to join the Air National Guard. From there, the steps of her path came quickly.

She graduated from seminary and became a licensed professional counselor in May 2010, was commissioned by the United Methodist Church in June, became a wife and stepmother in September, and took the oath of office as a first lieutenant in November.

The United Methodist Church commissioning process was one of two milestones in her journey to join the ministry. It marked the beginning of her 4-year trial period in which she would reflect and grow in her understanding of personal beliefs and the theology of God, Jesus Christ and grace. Hopp would be questioned on her understanding of ministry, her gifts and graces, and her strengths and weaknesses. If all went according to plan, the second milestone would mean becoming fully ordained after an examination by a board of church leaders.

The only lingering problem was that she was serving in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and her new husband, a United Methodist Church elder, lived in the Peoria area. She wanted to move closer but was not certain how to make it happen.

In what seemed like divine timing, Bell, the wing chaplain at Hopp's new unit, met the 182nd Airlift Wing's Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Michael Doan at a February 2011 conference. It just so happened that his Peoria unit had a chaplain position open.

Hopp left a voicemail with Doan, who called her back the next day while she was visiting her husband in Peoria. It was a drill weekend, so they set up an interview on the spot.

Hopp was nervous because she did not feel properly dressed - she did not know she would be interviewing when she left Pennsylvania, so she did not bring a uniform.

The wing commander, Col. William Robertson, however, was more interested in her experience in the VA hospital working with veterans and PTSD.

"At the end of the interview, it was, 'Alright! Yeah, we can definitely use you here. When can you come?'" said Hopp.

Her first drill with the 182nd was that August. Over the last three years, Doan has found Hopp to be a sincere, caring and authentic person and Airman.

"I can count on her to be fully present with the person in front of her, whether that's for one-on-one counseling or just getting acquainted with Airmen in a work area. She naturally pays attention to detail and works to see the big picture," he said.

Then, last month, Hopp received her full ordination with her pastor husband, clergy mentor the Rev. Mary Arnold and the Rev. Mary Kathryn Pearce, superintendent of the Illinois River District, present to officiate. In eight years and a series of anointed happenstance, the science teacher who never wanted to be a minister had become a military chaplain with a family she never expected to have.

"So, it was phenomenal," Hopp said. "Everything fell into place. We call that 'god moments.' 'Providential.'"

Hopp now serves the unit's maintenance group, parts of logistics, security forces and the civil engineer squadron. In addition to advising leadership on morale and being a prayer warrior for her units, she has conducted weddings, funerals and deployment briefings. She places much value on visiting her Airmen as much as possible and on building relationships with her unit members.

Doan said Hopp is a strong role model and that the wing gains a lot from her gifts, skills and ministry presence.

"This is to say that for a chaplain to simply be there makes a difference and means something to others. This is especially true at tragic times of loss or trauma when words may be inadequate," Doan said. "Chaplain Hopp represents God, the Air Force, her church and our wing very well by being who she is and doing what she does so consistently."

It is because Hopp sees something special in military ministry.

"I think people are people everywhere," she said, "but I think in the Guard there is something about that ethos that we have of our Airmen, that we support one another through good times and bad times, and we are a family."

Hopp, once considering a medical career, now serves as a healer of the spirit in her military community.

"The stressors that we all are under in the Guard and being deployed are different. And yeah, sometimes we come back wounded, but then that's kind of what war does," she said. "It might not always wound us on the outside, but it can wound us on the inside. And so, it's a very rewarding ministry to be able to serve here."