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Raymond J. Brown on Sailors Keeping Faith on Land & Sea
I have long wondered why some people, particularly men, hide their faith in certain professional situations. While our Lord directed that piety not be paraded about, that is quite different from hiding or ignoring it. I happily recall one time when three of my shipmates did not hide their faith.
It was 0500 on Easter morning, 1984, in the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. I was the Operations Officer and Navigator (third in command) in a medium endurance U.S. Coast Guard Cutter.
To our port we were refueling and watering an 82-foot Coast Guard patrol boat. On our tented forecastle were 57 Haitian migrants we had rescued from an open boat, diseased and in peril two days before. Astern we were towing a disabled freighter. Off the port bow was a seized drug runner up from Colombia. We were now operating the doper, as its crew was handcuffed and under guard in our starboard air castle aft on the main deck. Overhead we were controlling a search aircraft for another Haitian boat in danger.
It had been a busy night and an incredible past few days—and our missions showed little sign of slowing down or being resolved soon. I recalled my mantra that there had to be an easier way to make a living.
The sun was shining brilliantly across the Caribbean chokepoint we were patrolling. I was on the port bridge wing, supervising navigation, ensuring the relief of people in various watch, custody crew, and guard duties, and mentally composing my next Situation Report to the operational commander in Miami. There was much to do to feed our “guests” and ensure that their calls of nature were attended to.
Just as I was thinking that this wasn’t the usual way I spent Easter morning, Petty Officer Third Class Jake Meagher approached me from the boat deck ladder and mentioned that he hoped we would find time for a worship service later in the day. I replied that I hoped so, too.
I was the lay leader in the ship, a strictly voluntary collateral duty. But it was a task that was important to me. This was the third command in which I had been the lay leader. The only qualifications required for this duty were some knowledge of one’s own church’s doctrine and a character that would not be a disgrace to the same.
Later, I headed toward the ship’s office to get some paperwork typed. In a companionway I saw Petty Officer First Class Paul Kowalski, a huge young man who had once been a tight end at the University of Southern Connecticut. The captain sometimes used Kowalski’s stature as a silent intimidation factor when boarding suspected smugglers. Kowalski addressed me.
“Sir, perhaps there will be worship services later?”
I replied that I hoped so, but mentioned that there was an awful lot to be accomplished before “later” arrived. I was also aware that our sailors were not having the usual holiday routine of a Sunday and that even if the spirits were willing, most of the flesh was likely to be intensely engaged in assigned duties.
Some of the crew had been ordered to bed because we would need rested bodies later. One was Quartermaster Chief Rich Finneran. I knew that he would be needed for some extra Officer of the Deck watch later. I also knew that his constitution was not as strong as some others’.
“But I’m not tired.”
“Chief, we’re really going to need you later. So please get some rest.”
“Sir, any chance of getting together for services later?”
“We’ll see, Chief. I hope so.”
I was pleased to know that, amid this convergence of rescue and law enforcement missions, sweat-soaked and tired seamen could still think of Easter worship.
John Henry Newman wrote that to be a gentleman is to be one at all times, in all circumstances. That should be true for a Christian also, including Christian seamen. But it isn’t always so.
When I was a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, my class in the summer would move to cruises for seaward training experience. During those warm months, cadets always found it interesting to observe how some of our instructors changed when they went to sea.
Most were their usual selves. But there was a change in several of the lieutenants and lieutenant commanders. One officer, a genial physics instructor on land, was transformed into a super Type-A personality at sea. Another, an oceanography teacher who was relaxed around the academy and seemed to view the whole world with detached humor, became extremely intense on board, particularly during pilot house watches at night.
Conversely, there were a few officers whom we wanted to hide from during the academic year. But at sea they seemed to be more in their element and exhibited a greater enthusiasm, care, and pride.
Our cadet cruises took us to Rota, Lisbon, Nice, Portsmouth, Copenhagen, Oslo, and the Azores. On foreign shores, some officers demonstrated a side of their character we had not witnessed before, usually having to do with liquor and women.
After being commissioned, I became lay leader in my first ship by default, as would be the case throughout my seagoing career prior to attaining senior rank. No one else wanted the job of conducting divine services at sea. My first ship was a high endurance cutter, based at Governors Island off the tip of Manhattan.
This base was home to six ships, many boats, a large shore establishment, and six thousand people—by Coast Guard standards a big base. We had a real chapel, St. Cornelius, replete with chaplains. The three Protestant chaplains were Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Foursquare Gospel.
When in port, I usually worshiped at St. Cornelius. A couple of fellow officers, more experienced than I and married with children, also worshiped there. They were seemingly devout and also attended some special chapel events at times other than Sunday morning.
But when church call was held at sea, they were never present. And it was more than their mere absence that eventually became noticeable. At times they were downright hostile to what they had said and sung at St. Cornelius.
One of them was our Engineer Officer, a lieutenant commander known as a dedicated and hard-working officer, a “good man.” The Presbyterian chaplain at St. Cornelius spoke glowingly to me of the EO’s spirituality and of some eloquent prayer he had made in a small-group session. But this EO was nowhere to be seen during divine services at sea.
At first, I surmised that his duties kept him away (an EO is always on duty), or that he thought my efforts at leading services might be childish, uncomfortable, or ignorant—all plausible explanations. But later that year, I found out the real reason.
One winter day at sea, the EO and a few other officers were in the wardroom, grabbing a cuppa or assembling papers. In the middle of one man’s story about a chaplain being embarked in a ship somewhere, the EO exploded, “The last thing I need on board a ship is a chaplain! Never! Give me a break!” His tone and countenance bespoke even more disdain and hostility.
Then there was a very competent Warrant Officer in my first ship. Joel, too, was a regular at the chapel and associated events, with wife and kids in tow. But on board ship, there was no sign of that side of him. He was never at divine services at sea, and I also noted that, at times, his choice of conversational topics was a far cry from what his wife and kids would want to hear.
There was another old salt who reported on board my first year. Ken was also a Warrant, and as good a navigator and ship handler as I have ever known. From our first meeting on—and we got along famously—I did not suspect that spiritual matters were in any way a part of his daily life. His choice of deportment and conversation simply indicated otherwise.
He also chose to let others think, with smiles and calculated silence, that he’d had a liaison with an attractive lady some of us knew—though I was always aware that that was a put-on. He also let people think he drank much more than he actually did, which was very little indeed. Ken could nurse a whisky sour for two hours.
One time over a beer, Ken mentioned his pietistic wife. He told me that he never smoked or drank at home. The latter did not surprise me, but on board he was a 24-hour industrial chimney when it came to Marlboros (not that I considered that a damnable offense). At home, his family’s churchgoing was a way of life. I met Ken’s wife once, and around her he was a different man. Ken was yet another case of two natures in one man, a split personality. The man at sea was not the man at home, and vice versa.
These sketches make up just a smattering of what I would encounter over the course of more than 26 years as a commissioned officer on active duty. Like Queen Elizabeth I, I have no desire (or capacity) “to make windows into men’s souls.” But my experiences of men on shore and at sea have always given me pause.
At the academy, I was quite aware that young guys were always measuring themselves against their peers. I was doing the same thing myself. The “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” a patently false portrait skewered by Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos, might repel competitive young men just coming of age from attending spiritual gatherings. As a three-year letterman in football, though, I had little concern about whether the guys might think of me as Bible-thumper.
After four years afloat, I got a breather in a shore assignment in Washington, D.C. I remember speaking to a senior Captain, a committed Christian and active in Biblestudies. I noted that among my peers now ashore with me, some things had not changed. Our conversation went something like this:
“Captain, I thought I understood this reluctance to acknowledge faith when we were cadets. But these same guys now—some of them have commanded patrol boats . . . they’ve made drug busts and rescued distressed mariners at sea in storms. A number of them now have master’s degrees. But some are still afraid that someone will notice them going to a
“Ray, it doesn’t change when they have four stripes on the sleeve, either. Believe me, I know.” Indeed, he proved correct, as I noticed when my own professional career progressed.
In my younger days, I would read the story of God’s chosen people during the Exodus and would marvel at how they would doubt, challenge, and stray from the Lord who was leading them. And corporate infidelity has its individual counterpart. St. Peter has been the whipping boy in many sermons. There were his emotional outbursts. One moment he was the medium of the Father’s revelation, and the next the instrument of Satan. And of course, he denied Jesus three times early on
That side of Peter is a temptation to us all, though our lapses come with less historic drama. One can deny the Lord by what he does not say or do, or by where he chooses not to be. This is a longstanding problem among the laity, particularly those of the male variety, who fear that any association with Christian faith might be considered weak, effeminate, or illogical.
As it turned out, we never found time on that busy Easter of 1984 to hold services. But as I remember that day, I reflect on the truth that gathering for worship is central to our lives as Christians, as two Roman Catholics and a Pentecostal had reminded me. I was blessed to know that these sailors had no reservations about worshiping the Lord Jesus Christ, even amid guns, boats, and helicopters in the Spanish Main.
There are too few men like them, who know that when they enlist, they are thereafter always on duty—Semper Paratus—always ready. •
Raymond J. Brown , retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain, is an all-hazards consultant living in New Hampshire. Married with three children, he is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau and the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal. The names used in this article are all pseudonyms.