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Navy chaplain says quiet time challenges sailors at sea

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–On a cramped ship out at sea, where an intercom dictates what sailors are to do 24-hours a day, finding the peace of mind to pray, study, and focus on the things of God might present a challenge.

United States Navy Chaplain Tim Hall told the Florida Baptist Witness time alone with God is one of the greatest challenges Christian sailors face when their ship leaves its home port at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville.

Hall, 40, is assigned to the 400-strong USS Philippine Sea, a guided missile cruiser in the Navy’s Enterprise Battle Group. The ship, recent host to President George W. Bush, was back from the Persian Gulf in February for an indeterminate amount of time before it heads out again — possibly to take part in what has been a noticeable build-up of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

“The greatest spiritual need that happens aboard a ship is that we stay so busy all the time that we forget that we still need to just stop and spend time with God,” Hall said. “It’s tough especially for our younger enlisted folks.”

Even officers share close quarters on a ship, but the enlisted sailors can be dually challenged trying to find privacy with 40-60 people packed into a living space — and bunk-mates and others coming and going to the constant drone of the intercom in the background.

Hall, who grew up attending First Baptist Church of Union Park in Orlando, Fla., joined the Air Force right out of high school and then went into the reserves in order to pursue a business degree at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Miss. After graduation, Hall decided he wanted to return to active duty in the Air Force, but this time as a chaplain.

In 1992 Hall received the Master’s in Divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and made several unsuccessful attempts to become an Air Force chaplain. Finally in 1999, after first serving as pastor of Bourg Baptist Church in Houma, La., and then Beachside Baptist in Smyrna Beach, Fla., Hall received word he had been accepted as a reserve chaplain in the Navy. At that point he was able to transfer his endorsement as a hospice chaplain with the SBC’s North American Mission Board to become a military chaplain.

Returning recently to his native Florida from a four-year assignment at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico, Hall said the change has meant “quite a shift.”

In Puerto Rico, life was much less compact, with four chaplains from various faith backgrounds providing spiritual support for 10,000 sailors and their family members, according to Hall. Traditional Sunday services at the base chapel drew as many as 1,000 on Sunday and many of the needs for support and counseling mirrored those in churches across the land.

It’s different on the ship where only one chaplain serves.

“It’s a challenge because every once in a while we get called upon to meet the needs of faith groups of non-Christian folks,” Hall said. “My mindset is one of help — I don’t have to agree with their theology — but in the same vein, if I don’t help a Buddhist worship, where would it put the Methodists or Baptists?”

Hall said he does have the opportunity to work with other “waterfront chaplains” when in port, and that alleviates problems he might face, for example in ministering to a Catholic family.

“I don’t think Southern Baptists would appreciate me baptizing infants,” Hall joked.

Though he called himself “unashamedly a conservative evangelical Christian,” Hall said it is challenging, especially in the counseling arena, to sometimes keep his own views “in check” in order to keep the doors open that lead to “heart-to-heart” discussions with people who may not be like-minded.

“I can’t say, ‘get it straight buddy. It’s all right if you want to go to hell, but not on my watch,'” Hall said. On the other hand, Hall said he reminds sailors up-front that what he says comes from a “Christian, American … worldview of Christ.”

Because of his forthright attitude, Hall said his input doesn’t lead to arguments. Instead sailors are likely to thank him for being “honest, instead of trying to do some back-door evangelistic approach.”

“By being up front, I find people are more open to sitting and listening, knowing they have the freedom to disagree,” Hall said.

A lot of the young sailors especially, don’t know what a pastor or a chaplain does, and they base their impressions on television stereotypes.

“Along comes myself be-bopping down the P-way [passage-way] on the ship,” Hall said, describing informal visits to sailors at work on the ship.

Though he uses the Bible in most counseling situations, there are a few tough cases who respond better when he uses principles based on the Bible rather than Scripture itself. “It gives me the open door, but at the same time allows them the right to say, ‘I can’t handle that right now,'” said Hall.

Fortunately for him, the professors at New Orleans, where Hall received an M. Div. with a focus in counseling, prepared him for such a time as this, he said.

“They taught us how we can take the centrality of our Christian faith and kind of center that into this real world realm where people don’t know church talk,” said Hall. About the young sailors, Hall said, “They don’t know fellowship, but they do know parties. And they know Dr. Phil, Oprah and the others.”

Services aboard the Philippine Sea are surprisingly regular, Hall said. In the ship’s library, where Captain’s Masts, awards ceremonies, and other meetings take place, worship services usually draw from 7-20 worshippers on any given Sunday.

Hall admits the numbers are small when compared to those of the base chapel in Puerto Rico, but he said corporate services are not a big part of what he does at sea. Sailors, driven by constantly rotating shifts and unusual demands on their time, typically respond to a more personal type of witness. “I call it the Barnabas style,” Hall said.

His opportunity to witness might come while delivering a message from Red Cross about a death in the family, telling someone he is a new dad, or, just providing some computer time for a mom or dad to get in touch with their children via e-mail.

Hall said it’s only human nature to want to be home when crises occur, so he works with the sailors’ department heads and division officers to try and make sure their needs are attended to.

Officers and enlisted sailors face the same issues confronting “the average person on the streets” Hall said. They can be lonely and depressed, missing their families. The women officers also can question whether they have made the right decision in leaving their families to go to sea. “We all deal with that question,” Hall said in reflection.

Typically the first month at sea is the toughest, but then routine sets in. In this time of an increased threat of conflict, Hall said he will see “a lot of fear, anxiety” and concerns from sailors about their families.

“Spouses are saying, ‘I don’t want you to be in the military, I can’t believe this is happening,'” recalled Hall. “It’s kind of surreal, and we will try to dispel some of that when we get underway.”

Hall said the Navy conducts pre-deployment seminars with the families to talk about emotional and spiritual concerns — spiritual, because that shows a family in crisis how it can survive,” Hall said.

And with that ever-present burden of maintaining a positive spiritual outlook comes the responsibility Hall feels for assisting the sailors in keeping their focus.

With an announcement that the “day has ended,” just before 2200 (10 p.m.) and the final call for “Taps” and lights out, Hall participates in one of the oldest traditions in the Navy — a prayer over the intercom by the Navy chaplain.

On this day as on many others, just before the sailors were told there should be “no more noise about the ship,” Hall chimed in for the last word of the day. He prayed this evening:

“Heavenly Father,

In Psalm 12, we read, ‘The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.’

Tonight we come before you with trust and full confidence… in you. We can do this because, you promise to watch over and sustain us. We ask you to look favorably upon our efforts during this time of training and preparation. In our hearts we bow down before you and worship You because You are our God.

In Your Son’s name we pray, Amen.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor for the Florida Baptist Witness. Go to: www.floridabaptistwitness.com. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: STRENGTH AND VIGILANCE.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan