Colonel John C. Church, Jr.
In his 2010 “This I Believe” essay, Colonel John C. Church, Jr., writes that “understanding is a learned gift.” With straightforward eloquence, he bears witness to suffering, solidarity and sacrifice, faithfully recording the indelible marks they leave. Describing the ravages of war in Somalia, brokering peace in Kosovo, losing beloved friends in Iraq, Church’s vision is as unflinching as it is compassionate, as courageous as it is vulnerable. He writes of encounters that move and change him, of loss and love, death and birth carving out space in his heart. This is a leader—and a writer—one can trust.
The piece, which was featured on WHYY and National Public Radio, was written and recorded while Church, a colonel in the Marine Reserves, was stationed with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, an assignment that came shortly after he began teaching as an adjunct at Immaculata in the fall of 2009.
“An informal mentor of mine kept urging me to come here to adjunct, so I did and it was a wonderful experience,” said Church. “I absolutely enjoyed it. When I got tapped to go to Afghanistan and had to tell the University I would be leaving a little early, Sister Elaine Glanz, who was then chair of the English department, couldn’t have been more kind, more gracious. The students even threw me a going-away party, and that was pretty amazing. My peers here say we attract a certain kind of young person—a good soul. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
When Church returned from Afghanistan, he was invited to become the first president in the 75-year history of Valley Forge Military College, where previously he had served as assistant professor of leadership, dean, and director of the Service Academy Preparatory Program.
“I was glad to accept that challenge,” said Church. “I was glad to lead the college as it was growing and, when I was there, we recruited the largest class in the school’s history. It was very rewarding, but I really wanted to teach.”
As fate would have it, Church, who had kept in touch with Immaculata after Afghanistan, received an email from an acquaintance who was interested in an open position at IU in the English and Communications Department. Church recalls, “I was all set to send a reply to him about how wonderful Immaculata is and how much he would enjoy teaching there, and suddenly the thought occurred to me that maybe I wanted the job.”
Church decided to apply, was offered the position, and returned to Immaculata in the fall of 2011. He is now assistant professor of English and communication and a doctoral student at Temple University.
Leadership, writing and teaching are the three major themes woven throughout the fabric of Church’s life and work. His distinguished career of service began with his enlistment from Detroit as an active duty U.S. Navy deck seaman and hospital corpsman assigned to the Marines. He earned a Secretary of the Navy appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy where he graduated with a degree in political science, holds an M.A. in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and an M.A. in communication, journalism and public affairs from American University in Washington, DC.
After leaving active duty, Church taught at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the U.S. Naval War College, and George Mason University. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, he commanded a combined, joint Civil Affairs unit, leading Marines, soldiers, sailors and Iraqi civilians in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and his work with the Al Anbar Awakening has taken on historical importance. His personal decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal with two Gold Stars; the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal with two Gold Stars; the Army Commendation Medal; the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon.
Church’s personal reflections of duty throughout the world have been featured in the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and, in 2009, his submission, “The Best Seven Months of Our Lives: The War in Iraq and the Battle in Hollywood” won first prize for Top Graduate Competitive Papers in the Pennsylvania Communication Association writing competition.
Church has hosted “Life Long Learning” on Radnor Studio 21, Radnor, PA, and he has lectured on the dynamic of effective small unit leadership at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, St. Joseph’s University Air Force ROTC Detachment in Philadelphia, and at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Bryn Mawr, PA.
Since returning to IU, Church has been teaching a variety of courses, from Media Ethics to Crisis Communication to an English honors seminar, and a variety of students, from undergrads to graduate students to non-traditional adult learners through CLL. “I have my toes in all three ponds here,” he said.
As an educator, one of his top priorities is to make classroom material relevant to the realities his students will encounter. “In Media Ethics, we get into some really thorny issues,” said Church, “things that are happening right now that you can jump right into. We read In Cold Blood, Gentlemen’s Agreement, and The Hunger Games. Gentlemen’s Agreement may seem old, something that happened a long time ago, but I predict to my classes that in the not-too-distant future, instead of a man assuming a Jewish identity to uncover anti-Semitism, there will be a woman who assumes a Muslim identity and reports on it. I tell my students, this will happen in your lifetime.
“When we read The Hunger Games, we talk about the reality show Survivor. How different is that show from Hunger Games? When we read The Hidden Persuaders, the students realized it was just like Mad Men.
“I want students to appreciate the power of communication,” said Church. “The oral form is incredibly important, but the written form is equally important. Writing well is powerful—and extremely challenging. I bring them down to earth with the realities of grammar, syntax and structure, but I want them to be excited about communications and how the field is advancing. I want to make them aware of the world awaiting them—that it can be difficult, but also deeply enriching.”
Church also believes in getting his students out into that waiting world whenever possible. “When I was a student at the Naval Academy, we took a tour of the Situation Room and I will never forget that. It was a phenomenal experience. Pathways grants help us get students out of the classroom and whenever there is an opportunity to do that, I am quick to take advantage of it.”
Church has taken classes to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, most recently to watch a screening of A Face in the Crowd, to WHYY, the Philadelphia Inquirer, to the Newseum and United States Institute for Peace in Washington, DC, and to the United Nations. “We were at the U.N. when the Palestinian state was recognized. The students were very pleased to be there when that was happening, and it was a great experience to share with them.”
One of the things that fuels Church’s enthusiasm for teaching is the opportunity it provides to build confidence and competence in young adults, and to watch his students grow as writers and as individuals.
“As a Marine and in my academic career, I’m used to dealing with 18- to 22-yearolds. They’re a little guarded at first, kind of waiting to see what you’re all about. But when they discover that you’re consistent and passionate and fair, they come to appreciate those qualities.
“When I look at a student’s progress from beginning to end, when I’ve been able to inspire confidence, when I can see that a student knows the power of the written word, that is a profoundly rewarding feeling.”
And what is Church’s best advice for his student writers? “Repetition, repetition, repetition. Write it again. Bleed red ink all over it. I share with them that I have 12 draft versions of a paper I’m submitting, because I know what the standard is and it wasn’t there the first 11 times. I take them to the Writing Center and say, ‘here are the keys to the kingdom.’ There is no magic— you have to write and write and write.“
Church is currently assigned to U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, the Pentagon, where he leads the Civil- Military Integration Team. He is married to Mary Kay, a retired Marine major, and they have four children: John Carl III (“JC”), 8; Travis Joseph, 6; and 4-year-old twins Cathryn Harper and Claire Ripley.
One of Church’s biggest challenges these days is balancing his many roles: Marine Reserves officer, husband and father, doctoral student, professor. Each one brings unique richness and rewards but, as he readily admits, “Spending time with my wonderful bride, May Kay, and our family is easily and without question the best part of my day.”