Westmont Magazine An Officer and a Reverend
As an Army chaplain for 25 years, Colonel Ken Sampson ’70 has notified families of soldiers killed in action. He has reached out to Muslim soldiers and leaders since 9-11. With his division, he deployed to Afghanistan for a year. He moves frequently and travels regularly to combat zones. “It’s a difficult life,” he says. “Demanding but fulfilling.”
Ken came to Westmont to play baseball, but the choir became his favorite activity. “Singing under John Lundberg enriched my spiri-tual development,” Ken says. “He was such an artist. The Army world is hard-nosed, but at Westmont I learned to see the beauty of God’s creation in music, to clear my mind and focus on worship. I’m thankful for that.”
Ken intended to pursue some kind of ministry, and he thought a sociology major would best prepare him. “College was an awakening for me academically,” he says. “Ron Enroth’s sociology classes ignited in me this fire that you can live out your faith and do something about the cataclysmic forces in society.”
Although he didn’t see himself as a pastor, Ken went to Trinity Evangelical Seminary and was ordained in the Reformed Church of America. After a short stint as an admissions counselor at Northwestern College in Iowa, he became the chaplain at Southern Normal School in Bruton, Ala. For seven years he ministered to the students there, many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds. He began to notice that graduates who entered the service did well. That observation, the caliber of Army officers he met, and the appeal of physical training and the outdoors life persuaded him to join the Army in 1983. “I saw great opportunities to relate my faith in creative ways,” he says. Ken’s wife, Kate, has been his partner in ministry throughout his career, providing valuable support to spouses and families while raising their two children.
Earning a master’s degree in the history of religion at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1995 allowed Ken to pursue his interest in sociology. For the next three years, he taught the religious dimension of culture to linguists at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. Through the Middle Eastern, East Asian, Serbian-Croatian and Russian schools, he worked with people from around the world who spoke 27 different languages.
“In the Army, I have spent a lot of time studying Islam so I could teach and train chaplains and assistants about this religion,” Ken says. “After 2001, I had to deal with the tension between comrades in arms who are Muslim and the terrorists. Three weeks after 9-11, I wrote a paper exploring this tension, keeping in mind my Muslim friends and Islam’s rich and varied cultural history.”
As the combined joint task force senior chaplain in Afghanistan, Ken reached out to local religious leaders and scholars. “About 11 to 12 Muslims came to our first prayer breakfast,” he says. “Some were open; some were not. We were trying to build bridges, to have genuine dialog with Muslims. I’m pleased that this work continues in Afghanistan.” For his studies at War College, Ken expanded on the concept of engaging mullahs, an idea gaining some momentum.
Today Ken is the Army Materiel Command chaplain, overseeing religious support for all deployed troops and the thousands of civilians and soldiers in his command. He travels throughout the world to keep in touch with soldiers, seeking to serve the needs of all of them regardless of their religious background. “When you are in uniform, you speak to people of all faiths,” he says.