From Handcuffs To Chaplain
by U.S. Army Sgt. Courtney Davis
August 28, 2022
“It humbled me being in those cuffs. I didn’t think I would be able to enlist, let alone be a chaplain,” said U.S. Army Chap. (Capt.) Nimrod Alcala.
Alcala had no idea the calling on his life would be louder in his ears than the sound of the cuffs going on his hands, or stronger than the plans he had for his future.
Alcala’s parents, from Mexico, met in Eagle Pass, Texas during Bible college and got married. In ’81, his father had the opportunity to become a Spanish-speaking pastor in Phoenix where he was born.
During his youth Alcala and his family followed his father’s ministry from Arizona to Denver to Albuquerque, New Mexico before settling in Montebello, Calif.
It was there in California Alcala spent his adolescence and most of his twenties. He said he tried to stay away from the stereotype that pastor’s children were trouble but found himself misbehaving and hand cuffed when he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge – graffiti.
“They put me in handcuffs and everything,” said Alcala. “That was an eye opener.”
Alcala was spared that day: He received community service instead of jail time.
After his arrest Alcala found himself facing one closed door after the next. After graduating high school he wanted to become a police officer or work for the Border Patrol and was planning on attending California State University-Fullerton, however, he was unable to pay for his classes. The financial aid department said his parents made too much money and when he applied for grants, the applications were denied.
“I just worked and went to community college,” said Alcala. “I was just floating around (…) at one point, I just had to stop going to school because I was paying everything out of pocket.”
Chosen To Lead
Meanwhile, Alcala’s dad asked him to take over the high school Sunday school class. Despite wondering how he, of all people, was chosen to lead the youth ministry, Alcala came up with a curriculum for his Sunday school class.
“At that time, First Christian Church of Long Beach didn’t have much to offer the youth,” said Alcala. “I remember one day; I was waiting there in the classroom area they gave me. I was like, ‘OK, alright, here we go,’ and I had one kid that showed up. I thought it was a good icebreaker, but it was just awkward to have one student. It was so easy for me to say... You know don’t worry about it just go downstairs and get your cookies, coffee, juice or whatever and I’ll see you at worship service.”
But after careful reflection Alcala decided to stick it out.
He had a lesson plan and he was going to deliver the word of God. He said in the weeks that followed the class began to grow and he could see God moving in his ministry. He could see the evidence of his obedience, yet he still had his own plans he wanted to see come to fruition.
“God was saying, ‘look at how you are helping my kingdom and how you are growing my youth,’ but I was like, ‘this isn’t for me,’” said Alcala.
Although, Alcala was making an incredible impact on the church’s youth, he continued to pursue his dreams. But the doors continued to shut.
He applied to police agencies.
No one called.
He met with the detectives who worked on his applications.
They said to re-apply when he matured.
“My life wasn’t falling into par and I started beating myself up,” said Alcala. “I thought I’m such a bum, nothing is working out for me.”
Finally, he sat his family down and told them he decided to join the Army. All his plans were failing, and he needed to make a living. He said this would be the first time in his life he would be separated from his family, but he needed financial stability.
Alcala left home and joined the Army as a culinary specialist. While attending basic training Alcala would frequently attend chapel services. It was during this time his fire for the Christian faith was reignited.
“The on-going joke in basic training is that church is where you go on Sundays to get out of the barracks and sometimes, they have cookies,” said Alcala. “I went there to get back to my comfort zone as far as the church community. “
One day while attending service, Alcala said he looked around and thought to himself, “this is what Christ wanted before he ascended into heaven: To go and speak to nations.”
Alcala remembered how he saw Caucasians, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics gathered under one roof worshipping and learning about Jesus Christ.
“There were people from all parts of the country,” said Alcala.
During the service Alcala said he could hear God speaking to him, so he asked him “what do I do now?”
This was the moment he said he found out about chaplains.
“I was like ‘chaplains in the military?’” said Alcala.
Wanting to know more about chaplains Alcala started to look for them.
In his spare time, he would go to different battalions looking for a chaplain. One day, he wandered into a chapel and there found the answers he was looking for. Alcala said he immediately went to his command to request tuition assistance and enrolled in classes at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. He spent many hours after his shifts attending online classes to obtain his degree to become a chaplain.
While stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., Alcala would go to the bowling alley after his shifts and on the weekend to use their wi-fi. He said there would be times he would have to decline socializing with his colleagues to study instead and that they admired him for his determination in reaching his goals. He would also take leave so that he could attend school in-person.
“I can’t go, I got school,” Alcala would tell them. “It wasn’t easy,” said Alcala. “But I tell you the calling was there.”
The hard work paid off. Alcala received his bachelor’s degree and three years later his Master of Divinity from Grand Canyon University, before becoming a chaplain candidate.
“One day I was floating around the battalion, having a whatever day,” said Alcala. “That was the day the retention officer came to me.”
The retention officer told Alcala he had been looking for him and he had the phone number for the recruiting station in Dallas.
“I called and was like, 'this is Spc. Alcala',” he said. “I got your number from the retention officer. He was like ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’”
Based on Alcala’s education and earlier experience with his father’s youth group, he was fully qualified for the Chaplaincy Corps. For him to join the Chaplaincy Corps Alcala would have to get out of the military and re-join once a duty station was available.
Alcala and his family stayed in Phoenix for 12 months before a slot opened at a duty station. There were times he said discouragement would creep in because things around the house were a little tough. He recalled when there was no money for Christmas, and he would ask God if he was sure he was supposed to be a Chaplain. He would call out to him and say, “I have the light and fire to do your will, but Lord is this for me?”
One day Alcala made it back to his home church in Long Beach, Calif., and got the opportunity to give a sermon to his father’s congregation. He was excited to see the children he used to mentor show up to hear him preach.
“I thought I was the 'ish' - I wasn’t that little scum bag anymore,” said Alcala. “I had been in the military and finished school.”
He started to preach a sermon which sounded good to him, but he said he soon realized no one understood what he was saying.
“People are just kind of like, ‘this is nice,’” said Alcala. “See, back in Long Beach you have a variety of people, some didn’t graduate high school, some whose English is their second language, and some are single parents or whatever. I had to learn the hard way. It is important to know your audience.”
After three years of seminary school Alcala said he went back to the drawing board.
“I almost lost my roots; you know what I mean?” said Alcala. “Here I am thinking I’m ready for the chaplaincy and I wasn’t ready at all.”
He said waiting on God meant any message or guidance he brought forth would not be from him, but through him.
With Grace, He Made It
Alcala’s journey prepared him to be a chaplain who can bestow grace and mercy on his congregation, because he understands what it meant to need both.
August 18, 2022 - U.S. Army Chap. (Capt.) Nimrod Alcala, 1st Armored Division, 2nd Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment shakes hands with Soldiers assigned to 1st Armored Division, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment during a meet and greet at Warrior Chapel on Camp Humphreys. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Courtney Davis)
He remembered when he needed mercy after being arrested for graffiti. The misdemeanor popped up when he originally enlisted into the military and then again when he applied to be a chaplain. He said when his application was being processed, he needed grace for it to be approved.
Through it all Alcala said his wife reminded him, this was his calling, and he was doing it for God and not man.
Alcala, who now serves as the chaplain of the 1st Armored Division, 2nd Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment, uses his gifts to minister to those in the Christian faith, just like when he was 26 years old presiding over the high school Sunday school class.
“I was growing, and God was prepping me to come here, where it is just a majority of Soldiers,” said Alcala. “Like people in the pews everyone has a different story and it is possible to make a message everyone needs to hear that is biblically sound and theologically correct.”
His colleagues and the non- commissioned officers outside of Alcala’s units recognize how he uses his calling to impact the Soldiers.
“He is very passionate about the spiritual, professional, and personal well-being of those in our fighting force,” said Staff Sgt. Angel Anderson, 1st Armored Division, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, career counselor. “What I like about him is he is willing to seek out the answers to questions he may not know. He even has directed some Soldiers to me which shows how humble he really is.”
Alcala said the process was not easy, but if Christ suffered on the cross why should his journey to the chaplaincy be any easier? God qualifies the called and Alcala said the waiting qualified him.
“I wouldn’t have learned that if I got thrown into the chaplaincy after completing my bachelor’s,” said Alcala. “Even that time when I thought I was ready, I wasn’t ready and that was mercy and grace from God for sure.”
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