CAMP AL QA’IM, Iraq -- The Marines and sailors boarded the train and were ready for its final departure at 9 p.m.
This train, however, was going nowhere.
The Camp Al Qa’im Chapel, or “Soul Train,” a name adopted by the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, is an Iraqi passenger boxcar converted into a chapel. It was decommissioned as the camp chapel on April 10.
A newly constructed chapel for the battalion marked the end of the Soul Train’s nearly three-year stretch as a house of prayer.
The boxcar served as a chapel for many Marine and U.S. Army units that passed through the camp since coalition forces made their push to Baghdad in 2003.
Due to the boxcar’s small size, Marines here say they decided to build a new, and larger, chapel to house an increasing number of worshippers.
“The soul train was pretty small,” said Navy Lt. Richard A. Townes, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines chaplain. “Still, many Marines had strong emotional ties to it. They loved its uniqueness.”
After two deployments to this region along the Syrian border, some of the battalion’s Marines gave the old box car a second nickname – “Holy Roller.”
Whether called “Soul Train” or “Holy Roller,” the mention of this makeshift chapel sends many of the unit’s Marines into grandiose recollections of their history with the facility.
“I remember seeing a Marine from my old platoon get baptized there,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Peter O. Parker, the battalion’s gunner. “I also remember an Iraqi make a profession of faith and get baptized there, too.”
A house of worship for many people of different faiths, the boxcar served not only American service members but civilians and Iraqis as well.
On the day of its decommissioning, service members shuffled inside the cramped quarters, sitting on wooden benches which have replaced the box car’s original bucket seats. The large windows have been boarded up with plywood and an altar has been built at one end of the boxcar.
Stuffed inside the box car’s confined quarters, Marines and sailors gathered for the “Soul Train’s” final religious service.
“It was cramped in there, but once the service began it provided a good focus for prayer,” said Parker, 39, a Woodson, Texas, native. “It was a great place to stand in the presence of God.”
Parker, an ordained southern Baptist minister, conducted services there and recalled his first religious service in the boxcar, which is believed to be more than forty years old.
“When you walk in you know you’re stepping into a piece of history,” Parker said.
With the newly built St. Michael’s Chapel merely a few yards from the railcar, service members can now enjoy a little more elbow-room and privacy, said Townes, 45.
Townes cites the railcar’s small space as an inconvenience to those who need to speak with the unit’s chaplain one-on-one.
“My job requires me to have 100 percent confidentiality,” said Townes, of Brookings, S.D. “In order for that to happen I needed a good counseling facility where I can meet privately with people.”
Townes is happy about the new facility, which doubles the space of his old office, he said.
Though the new chapel is appreciated by the Marines here, religious services can be held just about anywhere, said Townes.
Since the birth of America, U.S. military chaplains have held religious services in the midst of combat, offering sacrament, prayers and scripture readings in a variety of tactical environments.
“When you’re out on the road, the back of the humvee is the altar,” said Townes.
The railcar was just another location Townes added to his list of unconventional places to conduct church service, he said.
“The main focus is to take the word of God out to the Marines to the different battle positions,” said the seven-year Navy veteran.
Townes regularly takes his show on the road, visiting the various posts throughout the Al Qa’im area of operations where 1st Bn., 7th Marines is currently eating, sleeping and fighting alongside Iraqi Army units.
While many seem sad to see the old chapel go, many more welcomed the thought of having a new place to conduct religious services.
The new church has the capability to support large numbers of church-goers, especially on festive days such as Easter Sunday, when dozens of Marines and sailors packed into the new church for the Christian holiday.
"It's very important for me to have the services available to me. It's comforting to know the church is there when I need it," said Lance Cpl. Jonathan A. Humphries, a mail clerk with the battalion’s Headquarters and Support Company.
The 24-year-old donated a painting to the church of the archangel Saint Michael, for which the church is named after.
The religious holiday drew a larger crowd than the Soul Train could have provided, according to Lt. Cmdr. Christopher M. Jack, forward resuscitative surgical suite officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 7.
“I am happy with the move to the new church,” said Jack, who missed out on two special days with his family back in the States last week – Easter Sunday, and his son’s fourth birthday.
“I've been thinking about my wife and son the entire time,” said Jack, who is on his first deployment to Iraq. “My thoughts are with them now."
Email Cpl. Rosas at email@example.com