The Running Congregation
After serving for 18 years as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, then another 16 years as a correctional chaplain, John R. Houser felt a new calling in retirement.
Houser, at the age of 70, is a U.S. Missions sports/athletic chaplain for both the Katie & Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center and the Columbia Running Club in the South Carolina capital city.
The transition happened quite spontaneously five years ago. Houser happened to be exercising at the JCC when another man passed out on an elliptical machine. Houser went over to counsel and pray with the man as gym staff members addressed his physical needs until paramedics arrived and stabilized him.
During the incident, Houser began chatting with Barry A. Abels, JCC executive director. The good-natured Houser explained his long history as a chaplain and offered to volunteer at the center — if Abels would buy him a shirt identifying him as a chaplain. Abels readily agreed.
Although the JCC’s owners are Jewish, only 200 of the 1,500 members are Jewish. The center is open to all faith groups.
“There’s always someone who needs a word of encouragement, someone with health issues,” says Houser, whose home is only a five-minute drive from the center.
These days, nearly all who frequent the JCC recognize Houser. He usually is on site every day, many times several hours at a stretch.
“Everybody knows him by face, many know him by name, and most know him as the informal official JCC chaplain,” Abels says. “He has an upbeat attitude toward everybody.”
Houser sees his duties as lifting peoples’ spirits, counseling those seeking advice, and comforting those who have physical injuries or disabilities.
“He helps keep it a collegial, family atmosphere,” says Abels, 63. “When he is here, it’s certainly a lighter atmosphere. He just brightens the place up. His good humor and enthusiasm stem from his strong faith tradition.”
While respecting different faith orientations, Houser relies on his Pentecostal underpinnings, clinical pastoral education, and military training while engaging in individual conversations.
Houser doesn’t merely roam the halls. He also works out in intense Zumba fitness classes, elliptical training workouts, and gym track runs.
“It’s not that good on my left knee, but I do it anyway,” Houser says.
The JCC has an indoor swimming pool, walking track, basketball court, and fencing and pickleball facilities. Participants can take Pilates, Zumba, other aerobics, and yoga classes.
Houser has been involved equally as long with the Columbia Running Club, which regularly organizes competitive races in the community. He provides voluntary counseling and encouragement before and after the events. He also competes, finishing a dozen runs this year.
“I’m in the next-to-oldest age category,” says the often-smiling Houser. “I’m not really fast.”
Nevertheless, the upbeat Houser finds many young adults are receptive to his conversations.
“A lot of young folks today don’t have much of a spiritual side and they don’t have anybody to talk to,” Houser says. The club has 280 active members.
“Chap is always in good spirits, always positive, and helping others to be their best,” says Roy Shelley, club president. “He’s fun to be around.”
Shelley, 52, says Houser is especially adept at encouraging those who suffer with debilitating injuries and those who come to the realization they can’t achieve as much as before because of aging.
“Chap is our elder statesman,” says Shelley, an attorney. “People turn to him to talk about different situations in life.” Shelley also appreciates that Houser has an active presence on the Columbia Running Club’s Facebook page, promoting the organization to the overall community.
Houser became a Christian in 1972 after accompanying his new wife, Barbara, to Arlington Assembly of God in Virginia. At the time, he served as a special bandsman with the U.S. Army Band in Fort Myer, Virginia. Houseman became an active duty chaplain in 1984 and retired as a major in 1999. Then he became a clinical chaplain with the South Carolina Department of Corrections, retiring in 2017 as chief of pastoral care at Kirkland Correctional Institution.
As if he doesn’t have enough to do in retirement, Houser is worship leader for the Fort Jackson main post Protestant chapel and an adjunct faculty member at Midlands Technical College in Columbia. He has a Master of Divinity and Arts in Biblical Languages from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and a Doctorate of Ministry from Luther Rice Seminary.
Barbara, who just earned her Doctorate in Intercultural Studies from AGTS, is involved in volunteer ministry at Kirkland Correctional Institution. Her dissertation focused on biblical rehumanizing processes for the incarcerated in an effort to reduce recidivism. Barbara also teaches religion and music full time at Midlands Technical College and is music director at the Fort Jackson main post Protestant chapel. On a weekly basis, Barbara facilitates a course at Kirkland.
“The ministerial training class teaches inmates to take care of each other when a chaplain is not there,” Barbara says.