Imam, Chaplain 'Bridging Two Worlds'
- Imam, Chaplain 'Bridging Two Worlds'
The man who could become the first Muslim chaplain in National Guard history is the son of a Baptist mother and a Catholic father who will face east toward Mecca today and pray alone inside his Omaha, Neb., office.
2nd Lt. Rafael Lantigua -- half African-American, half Dominican-American, entirely Muslim-American -- has an easy way to describe his long strange trip from Army brat to Air Force veteran to the brink of Guard history.
He first points to his Guard-issued camouflage jacket, then to his matching green Muslim prayer cap. He smiles.
Lantigua's journey began at age 11, when he went to an Army post library in Oklahoma and checked out a book he'd never heard of: the Koran.
It eventually led him to Afghanistan, where he posed as an Arab businessman for the CIA. It sent him to Iraq, where he prayed in Arabic while holding the hands of Muslim civilians bleeding to death from an insurgent's bomb.
Now it finds the 32-year-old in Omaha recruiting Pakistani-Americans and Sudanese refugees to the Nebraska National Guard by day and studying Islamic theology by night.
According to Nebraska National Guard officials, he is the first Muslim candidate for chaplain in the 372-year history of the National Guard, which traces its origins to colonial militias. He is scheduled to finish his religious training in 2012 and become the Guard's first Muslim chaplain.
"I see myself as a bridge between two worlds, because I can stand on both sides," Lantigua said. "When our new commander in chief said he wanted to extend a hand to the Muslim world, I thought, 'I can do that.'"
Lantigua's own biography is diverse enough to rival Barack Obama's.
Born in Columbia, S.C., Lantigua spent some childhood Sundays celebrating inside a rollicking black Southern Baptist church and other Sundays solemnly observing the rituals of a Roman Catholic Mass.
He liked the Baptists' energy. He liked the Catholics' tradition. Neither spoke to him.
So he embarked on a religious journey, he said, reading John Locke and St. Thomas Aquinas when most of his friends played Nintendo or shot hoops.
He studied the English translation of the Koran. He read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." He learned about Islam as practiced in Africa, in Europe, in the Middle East.
At 17, he entered a North Carolina mosque and declared his conversion to Islam.
"My parents were hesitant at first," he said. "They came around when they saw the kind of man that I was becoming."
Three days after converting, he shipped out for Air Force basic training.
For years, Lantigua's faith and his Air Force job seldom intersected. He served at bases in Japan, England and Arizona. He took classes to become a command and control specialist, one who briefed military leaders during tense moments.
He also became a Muslim imam, certified to lead prayer services and teach the faith to others.
The day that everything changed, Lantigua was on leave, wearing a long, traditional Muslim robe and sitting on an airplane with his 4-year-old daughter. The pilot announced that the plane would make an unscheduled landing in Little Rock, Ark., but gave no explanation.
Lantigua walked into the terminal, daughter in his arms. On the television, he saw a replay of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. He felt the eyes of the other stranded passengers firing shots at his strange clothing, his week-old beard.
With flights grounded nationwide, the passengers were bused to Atlanta, where volunteers offered them a meal and a place to stay. Lantigua watched as the other passengers were befriended one by one, until only he and his daughter remained.
As night fell, a man wearing a Christian-themed T-shirt hesitantly approached. He asked, do you have a place to stay? Do you need a home-cooked meal?
"God bless you," Lantigua said.
"God bless you," the man replied.
Less than a year later, Lantigua found himself at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where he befriended some of the Afghan cleaning staff. They were stunned, he said, to learn that Muslims lived freely in the United States, that the American government protected Muslims' religious freedom.
"They were just as ignorant about our life and culture as we are of theirs," Lantigua said.
American intelligence officers noted Lantigua's fluency in Arabic, which he had learned to read the Koran in its original form. They noticed his complexion -- "supposedly I look Egyptian," he says.
They asked him to pose as an Arab businessman. Lantigua rode into Kabul dressed as a rich Arab, protected by two Afghan bodyguards wielding Russian rifles. He bought computers and office supplies for the base and briefed the CIA and Army intelligence officers when he returned.
After returning to the United States and starting work at Offutt Air Force Base, he was deployed again, this time to Iraq.
He helped hunt for Saddam Hussein's notorious sons from a command post at the Baghdad airport. He was working the day U.S. troops killed Uday and Qusay Hussein in a firefight.
Another day, Lantigua heard reports that a suicide bomber had attacked a United Nations building. Military doctors quickly summoned him, asking him to speak in Arabic to Muslim victims of the attack.
Lantigua couldn't translate much of the medical terminology. Instead, he recited Islamic prayers and held the victims' hands.
The people who died that day were real Muslims, in Lantigua's view. The terrorists aren't.
"These people aren't radical Muslims. They're just radicals," he said of Middle Eastern terrorists.
"The Koran stands up against oppression. It says you don't kill women and children and the elderly. It urges the middle course."
Last year, Lantigua left the Air Force and joined the National Guard to pursue a career as a chaplain. Initially, Guard officials told him that he could become the first Muslim chaplain in Nebraska Guard history.
Then, Army National Guard chaplains did a little research, called back to Nebraska and said that to the best of anyone's knowledge, the Guard had never employed a Muslim chaplain.
"They told me, 'He's the first one,'" said Maj. Kevin Hynes of the Nebraska Guard. "We were all pretty surprised."
As he proceeds toward his goal, Lantigua administers a Guard recruiting program that seeks to lure Middle Eastern immigrants and other nontraditional Soldiers to the military.
On nights and weekends, he spends time with his wife and two children. He also completes distance courses from the Hartford Seminary's Islamic chaplaincy program, where he is studying Islam and Islamic-Christian relations.
No one is sure where Lantigua will land once he completes his religious studies. "I believe he'll be the kind of chaplain that, if somebody is having problems, they'll feel they can go speak to him. And he will help them," said Col. Rod Armon, a Lutheran pastor and the Nebraska National Guard's state chaplain.
Whatever happens, Lantigua doesn't think the next step will be happenstance.
He believes that his childhood in two churches, his first encounter with the Koran, and his experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, and in Iraq and in Afghanistan have led him directly to this point.
"When I look back," he says, "it doesn't seem like a coincidence."
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