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Priest tackles life at Tinker

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Although many things, from Air Force acronyms to household chores, have challenged Chaplain (Capt.) Gildardo Garcia since his term as a chaplain began, the Colombian native is anxious to serve the community here. Garcia was granted U.S. citizenship in August and joined the Air Force in November. (U.S. Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Although many things, from Air Force acronyms to household chores, have challenged Chaplain (Capt.) Gildardo Garcia since his term as a chaplain began, the Colombian native is anxious to serve the community here. Garcia was granted U.S. citizenship in August and joined the Air Force in November. (U.S. Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFPN) -- He is new at cooking, new at cleaning and relatively new at English, but the new chaplain here still counts his blessings.

In his Midwest City apartment, the Chaplain (Capt.) Gildardo Garcia could not be happier.

"Here, I live like a king," he said.

Hundreds of miles from his family in Colombia, Garcia believes life is good.

"It's a beautiful city," he said. "I like the base. I like the people. They make me feel at home and welcome."

Garcia grew up in Casabianca, Colombia, with his two sisters. At 14, he went to the seminary to finish high school, and at 16 he knew he wanted to be a priest. He was ordained in 1985 and spent the next 10 years in various parishes in Colombia, while longing to come to America. Random guerilla violence fueled his desire to leave.

"In Colombia," he said, "you are scared all the time. Scared for your life, your possessions, your family."

In 1995, he arrived in the Newark, N.J., airport.

"I was very scared, very nervous," he said, "but happy."

Garcia spent the next seven years serving the Blessed Sacrament parish in Elizabeth, N.J., and trying to become a U.S. citizen, a dream he realized in August. In November, he joined the Air Force and went to Montgomery, Ala., for commissioned officer training.

"In the Air Force, I have opportunities to be promoted, to lead a parish and to serve people," he said.

Besides the opportunity to serve, other benefits attracted Garcia to the Air Force.

"I want to know different places, go overseas, have different experiences," he said.

His first assignment brought him here in December, where he was officially welcomed on Christmas Eve during family Mass.

"The people here are very friendly," he said. "That is nice. I like that."

Catholic coordinator Judy Taylor helped Garcia settle in.

"I was with him when we looked for his apartment," she said. "I helped him sign on at his bank. ... I wanted to make him feel at home. (So,) I've had him over to my home for dinner."

While Garcia praises Oklahoma City and Tinker, he admits having difficulty with some aspects of everyday life.

"Everything is new to me," he said. "Even sitting down in front of the computer. That is new."

At 41, Garcia holds degrees in education, psychology and theology, but has only recently learned to use a vacuum cleaner.

"When I was growing up the women of the house took care of everything," he said. "I never had to cook or iron or clean."

"He's coming from a home in Colombia where his mother took care of him until he went into the priesthood," said Taylor, impressed with his initiative. "There, the priesthood took care of him. All his meals were taken care of. All his needs were taken care of. He didn't have to worry about anything.

"Then, he went to New Jersey. There, he was in a rectory. He also had his needs taken care of there. And here he is, entirely on his own, and he likes it," she said. "Nobody else is responsible for providing him with a home. He has to do that. That includes meals, laundry, (and) the basic things you don't even think about."

He arrived at Tinker with no furniture, appliances, dishes or utensils, but Garcia does not seem to miss parishes where others performed housekeeping chores. With the help of a microwave, Garcia prepares his own meals now.

"I buy freezing food," he said. Garcia anticipates a visit from his mother this spring. "I tell her, 'Mom, I want to cook,' but she doesn't believe me, that I want to learn to cook. I have to clean my room. I have to do my laundry. She doesn't believe it. She thinks it's incredible that I do that."

Garcia also receives help from others in the chapel. Barbara Campbell, coordinator of Evangelization for Tinker Catholics, usually sees Garcia before daily Mass.

"He's kind and concerned with a good sense of humor. He's just a nice guy," she said.

Campbell, who has worked at Tinker for 13 years, said she has worked with many different priests, but Garcia's background makes him different.

"His coming from another country and another culture opens the world to us," she said. "He's somewhat of an adventuresome person. I'd say he's brave."

Diane Raper, coordinator of Religious Education and Youth Ministry, agrees with Campbell. Raper, a 14-year Tinker employee, said, "I've seen a lot of priests come and go. He's going to be a good one.

"He's a very energetic, ambitious and caring man," said Raper. "And he loves home-cooked meals"

It is those idiosyncrasies that have endeared Garcia to many of the people he ministers to.

"There are a few glitches in his English," said Campbell, "but he's so intense, and he's so charming with the glitches that you really don't want to correct it."

Garcia is aware of those "glitches," and he said he is determined to fix them.

"Definitely something that I want to improve is my speaking," he said, "because I need to speak properly, speak fluently, speak clearly about the faith and the different religious topics we have to discuss about the Bible."

To help him with his English, Garcia reads Bible commentaries.

Meanwhile, Garcia will work on another dream.

"I like the jogging," he said. "I would like to prepare very well to run a marathon in New York."

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