Monica Lawson, 52, tells PEOPLE she'll focus on increasing the number of female chaplains, and the number of low-density faith group chaplains

By Rachel DeSantis
October 07, 2020 04:19 PM
Monica Lawson
Monica Lawson
| Credit: Mel Slater

Monica Lawson never expected her career path to go the way it did — she thought she’d be a teacher, or maybe a guidance counselor.

Instead, she recently became the first active-duty Black female chaplain to pin on colonel rank in the Army, an accomplishment she tells PEOPLE allows others like her to recognize all they can achieve.

“With all this going on, it’s a nice break as a woman of color to see the recognition,” she says. “I never saw anyone who looked like me. And so now those females of color, be they African American, Hispanic, or other ethnic backgrounds, now that they see a woman of color who has broken the glass ceiling and has a seat at the table, they can see themselves sitting at that same table.”

Lawson’s foray into the military wasn’t exactly traditional: after losing her scholarship to Spelman College her sophomore year, she needed to find a way to continue paying for school.

“I was talking with one of my Spelman sisters whose father was prior service, and she said, ‘Hey, you know, they have this GI Bill where you can pay for college,’” Lawson, 52, recalls. “My sister had recently joined the military, and I wasn’t so sure about it, but I just rode along with her to the recruiting office. And I was the one that ended up leaving with the contract.”

Monica Lawson
Monica Lawson
| Credit: Mel Slater

Though she’s currently the chief of recruiting for the Army chaplaincy, Lawson enlisted in 1988 as a reservist, and joined ROTC as a cadet before becoming a signal officer in the reserves.

If the Army was never in the plan for the Alabama native, certainly neither was working as a chaplain.

“When I was a child, I would always attend church with my grandparents,” she says, “[But] I’d never seen a woman pastor. I saw women as preachers, but never a woman pastor — not in my church, not in the church that I grew up… This is something that I never would have imagined.”

Lawson’s current duties include spearheading the recruiting process for accession chaplains and chaplain candidates — and with women making up just 5 percent of the active-duty Army Chaplain Corps, her goals are now focused on increasing the number of female chaplains, and the number of low-density faith group chaplains.

Monica Lawson
Monica Lawson
| Credit: Mel Slater

“I think I need to add a plate,” she jokes of having a full plate and a busy schedule.

While Lawson is the Army's first active-duty Black female chaplain to be promoted to colonel, Geraldine Manning became the Army's first-ever Black female chaplain promoted to colonel while she was serving in the Army Reserve.

Coincidentally, Manning shares a mutual friend with Lawson, and the two have struck up a friendship.

“I reached out to her and I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m so thankful that one, you took my call, and two, that you’ve been in places that I have not been. You’ve worn this rank and I have not,’” Lawson says. “She was so appreciative of me reaching out to her and recognizing her. So now I have a mentor. It matters.”

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Moving forward, Lawson — who also has two master’s degrees and is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church — says she’s grateful that her position can help others envision a future they might not have previously thought possible.

“It’s bigger than me because it allows other people to see that, ‘Hey, I can make this rank. I can attain this goal if it’s in God’s will for me,’” she says. “And it’s not just some far-off fantasy that this will never happen. It’s bigger than me because it allows other people to see themselves at the same table or at a different table.”