During Father John Gayton’s latest military deployment, troops are committed to the local community
CLAYMONT — With no shortage of projects on his to-do list, Father John Gayton is happy to be back in his office at Holy Rosary Parish in Claymont, which he has led since 2009. But he was happy to take a few minutes earlier this month to recall the work he did while deployed for much of the past year to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Africa. Father Gayton, a Navy chaplain, tended to the spiritual needs of the approximately 5,000 service personnel on the base. He also led the community relations effort that is part of every Navy command. “They may go to an orphanage and build some kind of desks, or they’ll paint the orphanage or something,” he said. “But this particular place in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, we have the largest program in the Navy. At the time I was there, we got up to 12 regular weekly projects.”
The base had about 500 volunteers working each month, contributing more than 1,600 hours of service. They would reach 800 to 1,000 children monthly, many of whom were homeless. The troops taught residents English and how to play sports, and they provided them with clothes, flip-flops and other items that had been donated by various individuals and groups, including Father Gayton’s parishioners in Claymont.
“By the time I left, we had received over $75,000 worth of materials. School supplies, toys, medical supplies, all those kinds of things they needed there,” he said. The outreach programs build trust and goodwill between the American troops and the local population, and it also helps with the service members’ morale and spirit. “They got to do something that they felt was a lasting good while they were there and develop this relationship with our host country in Africa,” he said. Unemployment in Djibouti is about 70 percent, but the people made the experience overwhelmingly positive.
“It was wonderful,” Father Gayton said. “The people of Djibouti were phenomenally good, generous, happy people even though they are very poor. Very moderate in their Islamic faith, so there’s some freedom of religion there.” In addition to the community service, Father Gayton said he helped establish the first official monthly meetings between base commanders and local government officials. It is not unusual for chaplains to handle these tasks, he said.
Camp Lemonnier is not in a combat zone, as Father Gayton’s last deployment in Iraq was, but it is a “hardship zone,” he said. As the only American base on the African continent, it provides troops to wherever they are needed. Service members from Camp Lemonnier, for example, have been sent to south Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, the Arabian peninsula and Yemen.
Although he has been deployed before and knew what to expect, returning to civilian life is not easy, he said. “You have to change your whole mindset, your whole rhythm of life. There’s certainly a lot more sensory overload here, all of the noise and traffic and green trees. You have to change gears real quick,” he said.
He returned to Holy Rosary with a full agenda of tasks awaiting him, so he had little choice but to jump right back into his regular schedule. Father Gayton was quick to praise Father Leonard Kempski, who filled in as administrator for the past year, and the parish staff. Father Gayton was able to interact online with parishioners while he was gone and received nothing but rave reviews for the job Father Kempski did.
Father Kempski, who is retired, lives at Holy Rosary and will still be visible at the parish, much to the relief of parishioners. “They are very happy to find out he’s staying because they were afraid he was leaving. He’s very, very beloved,” Father Gayton said. Father Gayton had anticipated a few days at the Jersey Shore with his family in mid-July, but some unexpected business kept him busy at home. He will, however, take some time to recharge at the end of August.