Students and faculty at Bishop Seabury Academy gathered for a special assembly Friday afternoon to say bon voyage and good luck to Christopher Bryan, a popular science teacher and assistant football coach.
Later next week, the man they've all known as Mr. Bryan will assume his other role as Capt. Bryan, a chaplain in the Missouri National Guard. And by Thanksgiving, he and his fellow soldiers in the 1107th Aviation Group, an aviation repair unit, of the Missouri National Guard will be deployed to Afghanistan.
"Part of our mission will be to pack up all the parts and tools that have been used these last 12 years and bring that home," said Bryan who, in addition to being a biology teacher, is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. "So there's a very certain sense in which I'm going to take care of the people who will close the door on that part of the mission and bring them home."
This won't be Bryan's first National Guard assignment that has taken him out of school, but it is the first to take him out for virtually an entire school year, and it's his first tour of duty as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"He's been deployed to Honduras and some state duty in Missouri," his wife, Cris Bryan, said. "It's going to be hard to watch him go away for a year, but I know he's doing a good work, so I'm proud of him."
During the sometimes emotional ceremony, Seabury Head of School Don Schawang joked that his colleagues often playfully refer to Bryan as "Jason Bourne," the title character in a series of movies based on the novels by Robert Ludlum.
"I dare say Mr. Bryan bears similarities to Bourne, except the part about being a government-programmed super spy with amnesia who frequently dispatches his former compatriots with brutal efficiency," Schawang said.
In fact, Bryan said, his role as a military chaplain is about as different from the Bourne character as anyone can get.
Teacher and citizen-soldier
"When we take citizen-soldiers away from their home and we deploy them, we take them away from their temple, their church, their mosque, their synagogues, and we make it very hard for them to have free exercise of their religious beliefs," Bryan explained to the students. "And so we have chaplains to ensure that that freedom still exists, that that freedom we have as citizens that makes us so very American is something we can exercise, even in a war zone."
During a recent interview, Bryan explained that he became a minister, with the idea of becoming a military chaplain, after he and his wife, an English teacher, had both taught overseas.
One of their assignments was to a project in Taiwan in 2002, working in a school specifically designed for children of Taiwanese descent who had grown up in the United States but whose families were then repatriating to their home country.
"They were trying to bring back the brain-drain that had come to the United States and gone to school, raised their families and stayed in the states," he said. "A lot of these kids had felt a little on the outside of society: back in America, a little to Asian to fit in; a little to American to fit in in Taiwan."
Eventually, the Bryans started attending an English-speaking church in Taiwan, and there they found many of their own students, along with many other Taiwanese who'd returned from Australia, South Africa, Canada and other English-speaking countries.
"We found ourselves really leading this small church, with no training to do so," he said. "It was this sense that all these people had gone to Taiwan looking for something, and there was nobody there to care for them."
After returning to the United States in 2003, the Bryans settled in St. Louis, where Christopher enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary, studying to become a Presbyterian minister. While there, he learned about the work of being a military chaplain.
"And it occurred to me it was very similar," he said. "You have this group that comes from its home culture, the civilian culture, and yet it has its own customs, its own language, its own dress. It becomes isolated from its own culture. It really touched me at the heart level, and I thought to myself 'I want to serve there.'"
Bryan said his unit will operate in a number of locations in Afghanistan, including the Kandahar air base near the capital of Kabul. It will also do some work at a base in Kuwait.
But his students will never be too far from contact, Bryan said, because he'll keep his Seabury email address and his personal blog site active.
Meanwhile, the staff and students at Bishop Seabury said they are not saying goodbye forever.
"While you are gone, we will hold Mrs. Bryan close to our hearts," Schawang said. "And of course we will be out of our minds with joy to welcome you back at the beginning of the next school year."