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Serving two 'parishes'

Soon after arriving in the United States in 1996, Valenzuela joined San Pablo, a small United Methodist congregation in Alamo, Texas. In 2009, he graduated summa cum laude from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

Today he helps his "struggling" congregation, El Alfarero in El Paso, and supports various church and community ministries. He is "waiting for opportunities through local churches" to address the "humanitarian crisis on our southern border with unaccompanied children."

"Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that my mission field would be the prisons and armed forces," says the Rev. Julio Valenzuela of El Paso, Texas.

Valenzuela is staff chaplain for a correctional institution in Texas. Until last June, he was the Army Reserve chaplain for the 383rd Quartermaster Battalion in El Paso. He is in the process of joining another unit, most likely in the National Guard. 

"I absolutely love my two jobs because they are more than jobs; they are ministries," he says.

In the prison, he directly serves about 120 inmates each week. In the Army Reserve, he served 80 to 200 soldiers each month, depending on the drill-training schedule. He also visited off-duty soldiers.

"As an Army chaplain, I have dual capabilities, religious leader and religious staff adviser," says Valenzuela. He says chaplains have three key responsibilities: nurturing the living, caring for the wounded and honoring the dead.

"[As a prison chaplain,] I provide [for] the religious needs of the inmate population and to other staff members upon request," he says. "I am being sent outside of the local church to reach those who might not have any other Christian testimony among them.

"In order to … serve soldiers, I have to become one of them," explains Valenzuela, who was appointed to the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years. "I need to learn the military language, go wherever they go and do whatever they do, except carry weapons. This provides many opportunities to provide informal pastoral counseling 'on the fly,' and share my faith on a one-on-one basis.

"When soldiers look at the cross on my uniform, or when I ride with them in a convoy," he says, "they start asking questions about things they might not ask in a formal church setting. It is a unique bonding experience.

Heather Peck Travis, freelancer, Glasgow, KY

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