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Group Trains Air Force Cadets to Proselytize

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2005; A06

A private missionary group has assigned a pair of full-time Christian ministers to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where they are training cadets to evangelize among their peers, according to a confidential letter to supporters.

The letter makes clear that the organized evangelization effort has continued this year despite an outcry over alleged proselytizing at the academy that has prompted a Pentagon investigation, congressional hearings, a civil lawsuit and new Air Force guidelines on religion.

"Praise God that we have been allowed access by the Academy into the cadet areas to minister among the cadets. We have recently been given an unused classroom to meet with cadets at any time during the day," the husband-and-wife team of Darren and Gina Lindblom said in the Oct. 11 letter to their donors.

Following allegations of religious intolerance at the academy, the Air Force issued interim guidelines in late August that caution senior officers against discussing their faith with subordinates. But the guidelines do not limit "voluntary, peer to peer discussions," and they do not say whether Air Force officials can provide office space or other assistance to professional missionaries who train cadets to evangelize among their peers.

The Lindbloms' letter was made public by Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy alumnus who was a White House lawyer in the Reagan administration. He has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Air Force of violating the First Amendment's establishment clause by fostering evangelical Christianity over all faiths.

Weinstein, who has been joined in the suit by four recent graduates of the academy, said that some other religious groups are allowed onto the academy's campus, but only during certain hours and under close supervision by Air Force chaplains.

"The only group that gets 24/7 unrestricted access to cadets is this fundamentalist, born-again Christian group," Weinstein charged.

The Lindbloms are not chaplains hired by the military. They are private, full-time ministers assigned to the Air Force Academy by the Navigators, a Colorado-based group whose motto is: "To know Christ and to make Him known." It began in 1933 as a ministry to sailors and now has missionaries in 104 countries, according to its Web site.

Reached by telephone at their home in Colorado Springs, the Lindbloms declined to comment on their letter or their missionary work.

Lauren Libby, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Navigators, said the Lindbloms were assigned to the academy earlier this year, replacing a previous young couple. He said the Navigators have placed full-time staff members at the academy for more than a decade. "We're there as a spiritual resource to cadets," he said. "We've had a very good experience there."

Libby also said that the Navigators are following the Air Force guidelines, which have been criticized as infringing religious freedom by more than 70 members of Congress and several Christian lobbying groups, including Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition. "Those are the guidelines, and we honor them," Libby said.

In their letter, the Lindbloms referred several times to the guidelines and to Weinstein's lawsuit, saying that "we are vitally aware we are in the front lines of a spiritual battle."

They included photos of the Navigator Cadet Ministry Team, a group of cadets who "have shown an interest in receiving training and development to have a personal ministry among their peers at the Academy," the letter said.

"Please pray for unprecedented wisdom for Gina and me as we coach these cadets to live among the lost, sharing the Gospel in the midst of this current climate. We must be so careful. Yet we do not wish to squelch the passion of men like Daniel," a cadet who has vowed to "impact the lives of 200 men with the Gospel" before he graduates, Darren Lindblom wrote.

In a postscript, they said, "We respectfully request that you not share this letter publicly. Due to the lawsuit recently filed, the contents of this letter are confidential."

A spokesman for the Air Force Academy said the Navigators are one of 19 outside religious groups -- including Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic and Mormon organizations -- that hold voluntary meetings on Mondays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in a program known as SPIRE, for Special Program in Religious Education.

The groups are invited on campus at the request of cadets, and each is assigned a room, but only for that 90-minute period once a week, said the spokesman, John Van Winkle. "They can't just use the room whenever they want. That would be a violation of the memorandum of agreement they have to sign," he said.

Asked about the Lindbloms' assertion that they recently were given a classroom to "meet with cadets at any time during the day," Van Winkle said he would check. He called back to amend his statement, saying the academy's chaplains had set aside an extra room that any SPIRE group could use for counseling cadets at other times.

Weinstein said the academy was "furiously spinning." He said he had been told by people on campus, whom he declined to identify, that the room was Fairchild Hall 2D11, in the academy's main classroom building, and that only the Navigators have been using it. Van Winkle said he did not know the room number or which other groups had used it.

The Rev. MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran chaplain who resigned in June over the religious climate at the academy, said the Navigators "used to have an informal agreement that they could meet cadets in the library." But because that location was "too visible," she said, they were told this year not to use it anymore.

Morton said the SPIRE program, which is limited to a few hours a week, should not be confused with the Lindbloms' efforts to be in continual contact with cadets throughout the week. "This Navigator thing is a whole different thing," she said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company