by S. Daniel Smith
Perspectives from one serving in the military on ways that missions might benefit from taking advantage of the opportunities military volunteers can provide.
You saw the fleet pull in yesterday. Now their gray hulks line the pier just down the street from the middle of town. You know that the arrival of the U.S. Navy means a couple of things, none of them good. First, it means the bars will be open late. Second, it means the brothels are going to be making big business. Finally, it means that your ministry to those in the sex-trade business is going to take a hit, at least until the sailors leave. Hundreds of military in port at the same time almost never means anything good for the ministry. They always seem to run around town causing problems for the work of Christ. Well, not all of them. A few seem to show some signs of promise.
One of these sailors emailed you several weeks ago suggesting a meeting between you and some of his friends. Seemed like an odd request, especially considering that you have never worked with the military before. This seems particularly true in light of the chaos the military brings every time it enters port. Still, maybe there could be something to this, so you write back for more information in as non-committal a style as you can. Before long, you receive another email and so on it goes. Now they have arrived. All you have to do is figure out what to do with them.
This is the process that I’ve worked through with several missionaries throughout the Asia/Pacific and Middle East regions. It is by no means a perfect process; however, even considering the possible snags of such a relationship, partnering with the military will provide you with far more benefits than the pitfalls could take away. Below I will share what a relationship with the military offers, what possible downsides to avoid, and how to go about establishing a relationship with the military.
Benefits of Working with the Military
My first port visit was to Townsville, on the east coast of Australia. I didn’t know anything about what God wanted from me as a sailor. The only thing I knew for sure was that he wanted me to reach out to missionaries and ministers. For all I knew, he was calling me to be a missionary myself one day.
Pulling into port, I went out with some buddies to a small island off the coast that tourists often visited. I randomly called the first Baptist church for which I found a flyer and the caretaker of the tiny island church loved the idea of sharing some time with us the following morning. Despite our haphazard style, our ministry was born.
When we arrived at the church the following morning, we didn’t even have to introduce ourselves. After all, we were the only ones with the accents and the dress shirts. We were so different, in fact, that someone traveling with us on the bus thought we were Mormons. I learned a good lesson that day about doing as the locals do in order to better minister to them.
The only thing I asked to do that morning was to share a short testimony. The caretaker readily accepted and gave me a few minutes at the front of the small church of about a dozen people. For ten minutes, I talked about how I had been sent to share with them about my faith, just as Christ had told everyone to do so in Mark 16:15. One of my buddies shared as well, and then we sat down and enjoyed the service.
Benefit #1: Fellowship. One of the first things you can get from a relationship with the military is fellowship. We would learn this over and over again. In almost every city I’ve visited, I have been able to form friendships with ministers and missionaries that in many cases have lasted for years. Furthermore, you gain a new perspective from the military. On that first island visit, my friend and I understood that we were sharing our testimonies to encourage the congregation to do what God had called all of us to do. These opportunities gave the missionaries and ministers we met with an opportunity to remember that they weren’t alone. All believers are in this together.
Let me give you another example. When we pulled into Mazatlan, a tourist city on Mexico’s Pacific coast, we met up with a local Youth with a Mission (YWAM) group working in the city. Most of the time, the group hosted small missionary teams from the USA or other developed countries. The groups would come to Mazatlan, build some houses, and conduct outreach. Since we were coming during a non-ministry season, there wasn’t much to do.
However, the missionaries based in Mazatlan were more than welcoming. We ate with them, visited their church, and practiced the limited Spanish we knew. We even learned which taco stands were good and which weren’t. The fellowship we shared bolstered both our faith and the faith of those who worked in the city. Even though we didn’t provide any manual labor for them, we did provide fellowship. For some missionaries I’ve visited, this has been the most important thing we could give.
Benefit #2: Physical help. Another benefit of working with the military is the manual labor I hinted at above. We didn’t always get the opportunity to work for a missionary, but often enough we were able to at least do something. This was particularly true in Thailand, when we met with missionaries working at the Pattaya International Church.
I first visited Pattaya in 1998 with the USS Mobile Bay. My trip was about a month after I landed in Townsville. In Pattaya, I wanted to do more than just give my testimony and fellowship—I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wrote a missionary to see if he had any needs with which we could help.
My group pulled into port with about five core members. The first thing we did after getting time off was to meet with this missionary family to find out what they needed from us. As the husband led us around the building, he remarked that the walls could use some color. Before long, our little group of sailors was painting away. We also painted the church sanctuary. In addition to this, we packaged books, pamphlets, devotionals, and wrote letters to prisoners to whom the missionaries ministered. This both encouraged the missionaries and took some of the workload off of their shoulders.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to Pattaya, but it’s been quite a few, and not once have I shared my testimony as I did when in Townsville. For whatever reasons, Pattaya has been a fellowship and working port for me. I like it that way and hope it stays that way should I ever get the chance to go there again.
Benefit #3: Financial support. Missionaries may also get financial support from the military. Let me share an example. Dale, who is from South Africa, has been ministering on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido for over three decades. I first met him in the winter of 1999/2000 when my ship visited the city for its annual ice festival. I gave Dale’s family a tour of my ship and his youngest son a ship’s ball cap. I also shared my testimony at Dale’s church. A few years later, I wrote to the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) because I wanted to sponsor him and his family. My wife and I supported him in part because he allowed me to play a small role in his ministry in Sapporo.
What to Keep in Mind when Working with the Military
I wish I could say that we—the missionaries and myself—never hit a snag, but that wouldn’t be the truth. Although we learned from our mistakes, there were far more hiccups than I would have liked to admit. Below are several things missionaries should keep in mind when working with the military.
Item #1: We may need to cancel plans. At times, I have had to cancel plans. This has happened twice. The first time it happened, I was supposed to go to Sydney with my ship. Our trip got canceled, however, when an uprising in East Timor started. The ship was redirected for fuel and supplies and we spent a month off of East Timor, making sure ships carrying supplies to that part of the island were safe. Canceling the mission in Sydney wasn’t a huge deal since I hadn’t really thought of what we’d do there anyway. I simply told the minister that we weren’t coming. He acknowledged it and we both moved on.
Unfortunately, the second time it happened was much worse. I had scheduled an opportunity with several members of my crew to help out at an orphanage in Pusan, South Korea. It was by far my most ambitious plan up to that point. Whatever the orphanage needed, we would provide. It took quite a bit of planning, but I managed to get everyone from the ship on board with the proposal.
Then disaster struck. A typhoon was headed north in the Pacific and turned into the Sea of Japan. Our ship was forced to get underway, so the event had to be cancelled. I attempted to call the missionary in charge of the orphanage the day we were pulling out of port, but to no avail. I left port without talking to him personally. I did get an email to him, but his response was terse and unforgiving. I can’t say I blame him. His mission was taking care of orphans, and having a team cancel on him like that when he really could have used our help must have been challenging. It wasn’t my fault, of course, except that I had been a little too ambitious.
Sometimes things happen that are beyond the control of a military service member. Typhoons, foreign governments, changing military situations, even wars, can alter a military deployment schedule at the last minute.
Item #2: We can’t give you many details. Military service members can’t give you as much information as a church mission team can. A military person will give you a basic idea of when he or she will be around and what his or her group can do for you, but he or she won’t be able to tell you exact dates until later. The reason is that the military requires Operational Security (OPSEC). You may have heard of the old WWII quote, “Loose lips sink ships.” It’s still true. The last thing a military man or woman can afford is to let a potential foe know about movements. So the information you’ll receive, right up until a week or so before the event, will be less than complete.
Connecting with the Military
So is this kind of relationship more trouble than it’s worth? I don’t think so, but that’s because I’m the product of a mission enterprise that is as successful as it is different. I’ve shared my testimony in half a dozen countries, broken bread with a dozen missionaries and ministers, and led groups of five to ten sailors in several countries. I’ve been a blessing to missionaries like you and I’ve been blessed by missionaries as well. While it is important to know the potential pitfalls of a connection with military personnel, knowing them shouldn’t push you away from the relationship.
Many men and women in the military are waiting and more than willing to take part in your work however they can. Below are two ways to make contact with the military.
The first way is if military men or women make contact with you first. This is how I conduct my missions. This is a rather ineffective method of meeting and taking advantage of what the military can bring, however, as you may be overlooked.
The second way is to walk right up to the ship (depending upon what port you’re in) and request to see the chaplain or lay minister on board. If you’re near an Army/Marine/Air Force base, then the phone number to the chaplain is most likely available on the Internet. For ships, simply request to meet the chaplain from the guard shack or quarterdeck (where everyone comes and goes on a ship). If all else fails, ask for the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and explain the situation to him or her. Once you’re in touch with the chaplain or lay minister, ask to meet with the Protestant sailors. You can invite them to see what you do and take it from there. Word will get around that you’re interested.
The benefits of missionaries and the military developing a relationship are many. Whether it is free labor, good fellowship, a fresh perspective, or a tour of a ship or installation, these benefits outweigh the risks. It is also an opportunity to support a military member as he or she ministers to their crew. All parties win, including God and the gospel.
S. Daniel Smith is a career sailor in the U.S. Navy living near Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife, Alicia, and their three children. He blogs at www.navychristian.org. Dan received his MA in religion from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Virginia.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 72-77. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.