Spiritual Quest to Break New Ground

February 17, 2009

Author: Matthew Hansen

Source: Omaha World-Herald

http://www.omaha.com/index.php?u_page=2798&u_sid=10565933

The man who could become the first Muslim chaplain in National Guard history is the son of a Baptist mother and a Catholic father who will face east toward Mecca today and pray alone inside his Omaha office.

Second Lt. Rafael Lantigua - half African-American, half Dominican-American, entirely Muslim-American - has an easy way to describe his long strange trip from Army brat to Air Force veteran to the brink of Guard history.

He first points to his Guard-issued camouflage jacket, then to his matching green Muslim prayer cap. He smiles.

Lantigua's journey began at age 11, when he went to an Army post library in Oklahoma and checked out a book he'd never heard of: the Koran.

It eventually led him to Afghanistan, where he posed as an Arab businessman in an undercover operation. It sent him to Iraq, where he prayed in Arabic while holding the hands of Muslim civilians bleeding to death from an insurgent's bomb.

Now it finds the 32-year-old in Omaha recruiting Pakistani-Americans and Sudanese refugees to the Nebraska National Guard by day and studying Islamic theology by night.

According to Nebraska National Guard officials, he is the first Muslim candidate for chaplain in the 372-year history of the National Guard, which traces its origins to colonial militias. He is scheduled to finish his religious training in 2012 and become the Guard's first Muslim chaplain.

"I see myself as a bridge between two worlds, because I can stand on both sides," Lantigua said. "When our new commander in chief said he wanted to extend a hand to the Muslim world, I thought, 'I can do that.'"