“Join the Navy and see the world,” they said. I imagined exotic tours of the western Pacific, or beautiful Mediterranean ports. Well, I did and was stationed in my backyard. Not literally. It went like this, Boot Camp in Orlando, “A” School in San Diego, and then stationed in a Reserve Destroyer in Philadelphia. Anytime I had two days of leave in a row, I was back up the New Jersey Turnpike to my home in New York City. Then, as if that wasn’t close enough, our ship was to be drydocked for ten months to be overhauled. Where? Brooklyn, NY. I took the A Train home nearly every night. Then everything changed.
Six months before I was to be discharged, I was transferred to an aircraft carrier stationed in Norfolk, VA. Maybe this would be a parting gift, I thought, an opportunity to see some of the world.
I learned as soon as I reported for duty that we were headed out on a cruise. Except it wasn’t to the Mediterranean as I’d hoped. We were to be headed south, around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean. More specifically, we were headed to the Persian Gulf. US hostages were being held in Iran. The rescue mission had failed. It was our duty to be part of the ongoing US presence in the area until the hostages were released. There was tension in the air, and we were not alone.
As we circled in the Gulf, so did a Soviet carrier group. We were each very aware of the other’s presence. Often, day and night, we would launch jets into the sky. It was part a show of strength, and part a drill to keep everyone’s skills sharp if needed. What I didn’t know right away is that something else was going on.
Our pilots were flying over near where the Soviet ships were and dropping bags of trash. The Soviet pilots were doing the same near our ships. Boats would be dispatched to pick up these bags and searched for clues. It was as though the two ship’s captains didn’t want to be there, and were saying, “Let the politicians strut, jockey for position, in the meantime let’s find a way to get along.” At least, that’s the way I chose to remember it.
It was an isolating time on board the carrier. The Protestant Fellowship was, for me, an opportunity to explore the landscape of US Christianity. I met shipmates with beliefs that were similar and wildly divergent. Sometimes there were opposing beliefs, each with scripture to support it. Our late-night conversations helped me to understand that God is known, and Christ is followed in many ways. It challenged me to work out my own understanding of faith and not simply trust what I had been taught.
Yes, I did get to see some of the world. Just not what I had hoped. We were to travel to Australia, and I thought of Sydney. We went instead to the city of Perth. We were encouraged to wear our uniforms and accept the local hospitality. Two of us were invited to come to one home where we were to be offered tea. We went unsure of what to expect. It was a steak dinner. Another family invited a small group of which I was a part for dinner, Bible study, and a swim in their pool.
At our other port visit, we went to Port Louis, Mauritius. There too, we were invited into the homes of people there who offered us goat, octopus, and seafood curries. Those visits are among the most vivid of my time in the Navy. Strangers, who sometimes spoke other languages, extended hospitality to me and opened my eyes to see the world through theirs. My hopes were that of a tourist, my experience of meeting others helped me to see God at work in them building beloved community.
Do you have any plans for vacation this summer? Perhaps a road trip across Wisconsin, some time up north, a flight to somewhere exotic, a book from the library, or a few hours of the Travel Channel. Wherever you go, or even if you stay at home, don’t just see your surroundings. I invite you to be intentional about getting to know someone or something new. Explore what God might be teaching you. Reflect on what you’re learning and how it might make a difference in your life or the lives of those around you. Whether you travel far away or see your local surroundings as if for the first time, pilgrimage has long been a spiritual practice, and “journey” a deeply felt metaphor for our spiritual lives.
Embark on a journey, be open to what God might reveal, you just might see the world!