In times of combat when soldiers stare into the face of their mortal enemy some will recognize that they also stare into the face of eternity. When troops are called to go to war, they often buy Bibles, sometimes in great numbers, and seek gospel counselors. Many desire to get right with God before they enter the battlefield, so they need someone to point them to Christ for salvation and peace with God. For soldiers to have their pastor and preacher with them in such times brings light and hope where otherwise there would be darkness and fear. There is a band of troops who have such a pastor in Captain Vicente Alcivar. He is our Free Presbyterian man in military uniform serving with the U.S. Army. Over his life he has gone from sinner to saint, then from Christian civilian to military chaplain. He continues to minister behind the lines of military service. We felt it was time to seek out Captain Alcivar to learn of his life and work for the Lord to the men and women who are willing to risk life and limb in defense of their country.
Tell us about your place of birth and your early years.
I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, one of the largest and most populated cities in South America. I come from a very poor family; my mom, dad, and three sisters all still live in Ecuador. My dad left home many times, and it was my mom who raised the family. We lived in a very dangerous neighborhood and when I was fifteen years old because of various circumstances I lived by myself for almost two years in my parents’ house. Those years were very challenging but I felt the Lord’s protection even in those days. We were not religious, but like most Ecuadorian families, we all claimed to be Catholics but rarely went to church. I would say that in poor neighborhoods like that young people get to see and experience much injustice and wickedness on a regular basis. I was considered to be a good kid, but I had my share of rebellion and lack of discipline that demonstrated that I was a sinner and did not know the Lord as Saviour.
How were you and your wife brought to the knowledge of Christ and the assurance of salvation?
Salvation is of the Lord. As sinners we think that we are seeking the Lord, but in reality the Lord is seeking us. In my twenties I had no inclination for church or the gospel or anything like that. One day I was invited to church by the Ecuadorian lady that rented me a room. I attended the evening service in a Nazarene church with this family. I do not remember what the preacher was talking about, but that day the Lord saved me and by His grace changed my heart.
My wife, however, grew up in the church and knew the Lord at a younger age. I came to assurance of salvation through the ministry of Dr. Cameron, a PCA pastor of a church in New Jersey, and the ministry of Rev. John Wagner in Orlando. They both expounded the doctrines of grace and pointed to the finished work of Christ on the cross and not on men’s failures or doubts about salvation.
You and your family were members of Orlando Free Presbyterian Church. Do you still consider Orlando and the congregation there to be your spiritual home?
We came to know the Free Presbyterian church through the radio ministry of Rev. John Wagner of Orlando Free Presbyterian Church. We were delighted to be part of the Orlando church. The congregation was very united and it felt like one big family. Later Rev. Derek Erwin was a great encouragement to us, particularly when we considered moving to study in Greenville, South Carolina. We miss the people of the church. They were genuine and loving, and their testimony really impacted our lives. Orlando FPC will always be my “home” church.
Explain how you came to the conviction that God was calling you to gospel ministry and tell us what years you studied at Geneva Reformed Seminary in Greenville.
While we were attending Orlando FPC the Lord convicted me to study for the ministry, but I did not know how to proceed. I always have been introverted and quiet so I prayed that God would change that and make me fit for the task first to go to seminary and later for the gospel ministry. One day when I was visiting Faith FPC in Greenville Dr. John Douglas preached from Exodus 17, and the Lord made it clear to me that I should pursue the studies. The days in seminary were really challenging too, but beneficial. I firmly believe Geneva Reformed Seminary provides a greater level of education for the gospel ministry than many other schools in the United States. I have had the opportunity to measure the level of education we received while working with many chaplains that have attended other schools.
You are the first and only graduate from GRS to pursue chaplaincy in any of the U.S. services. How did that door open for you?
When I was getting close to graduation from GRS, I was praying to have a clear leading of the Lord to go where I could serve Him. My desire was to go back to Florida or to Connecticut, where we had lived before moving to Florida, and for people to call me to serve the Lord with them. The only people that were calling me for over a year were the U.S. Army chaplain recruiters. My answer to the Army for a long time was no.
Providentially, the Lord used different people to convince me to join the Army. I was working for the Post Office at the time and there I met a reservist soldier who wanted to recruit me to join the Army. Because I was in seminary, he asked me if he could submit my name to the chaplain recruiter. Chaplain recruiters found out that I had signed up for the Navy in 1996 and that those orders were deleted due to downsizing in the Armed Forces. That led to a PCA Presbyterian chaplain recruiter contacting me and insisting that I join the Army because they needed more conservative and/or liturgical chaplains.
Additionally, one day I watched a documentary that said Army units were deploying to combat without chaplains and that the need was great. Soon after that the chaplain recruiter told me that it was the Lord’s will for me to be a chaplain. So I considered the possibility. I prayed and talked to different people that I trust, and finally I asked the presbytery for its approval for me to serve in the military with their blessings. After the presbytery’s approval all the doors were opened and I joined to serve “God and country” as the Army chaplaincy puts it.
What is a typical day in a chaplain’s life?
The chaplaincy ministry is unique and diversified. Chaplains are different from ministers who serve in churches. I have learned that for some people I am too liberal, and for others I am too conservative. The reality is the chaplaincy is not a church. It is more like a mission field where you have the opportunity to witness for the Lord and serve many people. A typical day looks just like a typical day for any other officer with the distinction that we are called to be the spiritual leaders. We are on call all day every day and report directly to the unit commander.
We provide religious support to everyone in the unit that we are assigned to. That could be a soldier from a different faith or even an atheist. Soldiers come sometimes with particular requests that are foreign to my beliefs. As a Christian chaplain I trust the Lord for wisdom to deal with such situations. But chaplains either “perform” or “provide,” so I perform religious support based on my Protestant faith, or I provide, which means I find someone to do it for me if the request is according to government regulation.
Part of my job is to advise the commander on the morale of the unit and the religious outlook. So on a regular basis I workout with the troops, attend meetings for the battalion, go to the field for training, do counseling, and do invocations and benedictions for military events. I also teach classes to improve the morale of soldiers; the classes might be on suicide prevention, finances, the Army as a profession, ethics, Battlemind [a program designed to help soldiers deal with combat zone deployment], and other topics that help to keep the morale high. I do retreats for soldiers and their families, funerals, memorial ceremonies, and weddings, and I visit the troops wherever they are. I also teach a lunchtime Bible study every Wednesday, hold a quarterly prayer breakfast where we eat, pray, sing, and have a devotional, and preach at the post chapel at least once a month.
How have your wife and family been able to handle your absence during terms of duty?
The family has adjusted somehow to military life. It definitely has demanded sacrifices on their part. It has been hard for my wife and kids when I have been deployed, but we were able to communicate on Skype. We are grateful that the Lord has raised a lot of people to pray for our safety and wellbeing. My kids are older now so I think they are handling it well now that they are in college. We especially appreciate the time we have together as a family.
Tell us about your family and their goals in life so readers may pray for them.
The main family goal is to be together as much as we can. In the military you can never tell if another conflict will arise and we will have to be separated again. Two of my sons are close to graduation from college and the youngest will be finishing next year. They will be looking for employment after college and they may move somewhere else. Yvette and I pray they stay in the area, but we do not know what the Lord has in store for them. So our prayer is that the Lord will guide them after their college years and preferably keep them close to the family.
How long do you think you will continue in the military?
I like what I do in the Army, even though the military is very challenging and at times it is an overwhelming ministry. I believe I have been in the will of the Lord ministering to many people, saved and unsaved. I will stay in the military as long as the Lord keeps me here. I am a senior captain now, so in the next three years if I do not get picked for promotion to major then I will be forced to get out. So if the Lord closes the doors then I will get out. I remember that after my first assignment in Fort Hood, Texas, I wanted to get out, but the Lord used some people to encourage me to stay in the Army. Two battalion commanders asked me not to get out, and in Afghanistan a retired commander that attended my Spanish service wrote me a letter asking me to consider staying in the Army because of the need for more conservative chaplains.
Would you advise young Christian men to seek opportunities for chaplaincy work in the military?
I would advise anyone interested in the chaplaincy to seek the will of the Lord in prayer. This is very critical because the chaplaincy is not for everybody. The struggles and evil of war impact people in many different ways. I have seen a chaplain abandon the Christian faith after a deployment in a combat zone because of the atrocities he saw. I think to be a Christian chaplain you must realize that Christ is still sitting on the throne, that men are evil by nature, and that there is nothing new under the sun. Many people join the military because they think it is like what is portrayed in movies but that glamour fades away very quickly once they get here. But then again, a chaplain must also like the military and understand that he is an officer with the privilege of providing religious support with the message of the gospel to the men and women in uniform.