Worship on a warship

Worship on a warship
5 min read
09 December, 2016
Sailors may be a famously superstitious bunch, but the Navy's chaplaincy service attempts to minister to their spiritual development, even during times of warfare, writes James Brownsell.
Navy Chaplain Commander Ted Williams says 'warfare involves humanity' [James Brownsell]

Religion and warfare have walked hand in hand throughout history. Point to any battle in the annals of time, and you will find someone offering divine inspiration and justification for the power politics and violence of one side or the other. Usually both.

And it would take the most hardened of atheists not to offer up a quick prayer when finding oneself trapped under fire in a foxhole in the middle of the field of war.

In the United States, the military chaplaincy pre-dates the nation itself, with the Chaplain Corps tracing its origins to the Continental Navy in 1775.

But the role of the 850 chaplains serving the United States Navy, Marines and Coastguard today appears to have changed a little since then.

"It's about helping the crew find the space to be resilient in practicing their faith," Commander Ted Williams tells The New Arab.

There are five chaplains here on board the strike group spearheaded by the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, the aircraft carrier patrolling the Gulf and sending young men and women in jet fighters to kill young men and women of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

The chaplains, incidentally, are ferried between the strike group's ships on a helicopter with the callsign "The Holy Helo".

Read more: Exclusive report from the aircraft carrier
bombing Syria and Iraq [James Brownsell]

"We assist the crew in practicing their faith and cater for the spiritual development of all our sailors," said Williams, the Command Chaplain in charge of faith services on board.

The chaplain was keen to stress that the three main Abrahamic faiths all received ministry to the best of the navy's ability.

While some 80 Catholics regularly attend mass, and a frequent Gospel service joins hundreds of sailors in Christian worship, the ship holds Jewish services with a Torah scroll once rescued from the clutches of the Holocaust in eastern Europe. It was later donated to the USS Eisenhower by a Jewish community in Ohio who had learned the ship's sailors had been going without.

The chaplaincy also makes its worship space available for Muslim sailors for prayers, particularly Jumuah on Fridays.

Not that they need much room. There are just six practicing Muslims on board, out of a ship's crew of more than 5,300.

The 3.3 million Muslims living in the US make up around one percent of the nation's population, but there are fewer than 6,000 Muslims among the 1.3 million United States military service personnel - just 0.27 percent - and Muslims make up just 0.11 percent of the Eisenhower's company.

Blog: US Navy presses Arab media charm offensive, but what comes next?

Part of this may be down to geography. While religiosity is generally high among enlisted (ie: non-officer) military personnel - and while religiosity, poverty and low education levels may be correlated, they are frequently (and, it turns out, incorrectly) associated with military recruitment - it is true, however, that "the Deep South" contributes a higher proportion of its young men and women to the military than the rest of the country.

In 2007, the Heritage Foundation - the Conservative Washington DC thinktank reportedly now playing a major role in assembling Donald Trump's White House administration - found recruits from Texas to the Carolinas comprised nearly 43 percent of the military's enlisted personnel. In 2014, the proportion had risen to 44 percent, according to Department of Defense figures.

None of these "Bible Belt" states are exactly known for their dense Muslim populations.

Our job is to make sure that sailors have the strength and encouragement they need to excel in their work
- Rear Admiral Margaret G Kibben

But while geography may play some small role in this, it is inevitable that faith, ideology, peer and community pressure also account for the proportionally small numbers of Muslims in the military.

For much of the past 25 years, the focus of US military action has been targeted against Muslim-majority nations across the Middle East. The widespread perception that these have largely been wars not of defence, but of choice - securing either oil resources or strategic geopolitical alliances between influential power-brokers - must have turned many young people, and not just Muslims, away from military recruiters as the death tolls racked up.

In the years since 9/11, the rising tide of Islamophobia in the US has led many Muslims to ask why they would put their lives at risk for those whose hateful rhetoric puts them and their families at risk in their own homes.

But still, Muslims do sign up. They sign up, they serve in uniform, they follow their commanders' orders, they fight and they die, all while carrying the flag of the United States.

In pictures: Click here for more photos from
the USS Eisenhower [James Brownsell]

Back on board the USS Eisenhower, Chaplain Ted Williams is speaking about his team's pastoral duties beyond the facilitation of worship.

"We offer counselling outside the chain of command, so so the chain of command doesn't have to know about any personal struggles a crew member may be facing," he tells The New Arab. "We look to safeguard confidentiality."

The ship's healthcare and medical team does include a psychologist, who most often sees patients suffering from workplace stress, the Eisenhower's senior medical officer told The New Arab. But "the padre" remains a trusted adviser.

"Our job is to make sure that sailors have the strength and encouragement they need to excel in their work," said Rear Admiral Margaret G Kibben, the Navy Chief of Chaplains on a recent visit to the Eisenhower.

"This crew has demonstrated the toughness we preach - absorbing the shocks that life throws at us and not breaking. You can't lose who you are or fall apart. The religious ministry teams are there to help you preserve that."

To take a life runs counter to the teachings of any religion worth its salt. So how does a navy chaplain reconcile the pastoral role of their mission with the military's fundamental role in warfare? Where is God's mercy in an airstrike?

Chaplain Williams makes it clear that he serves the ship's community on board, not the government in Washington.

"Warfare involves humanity," he says. "As a chaplain, as a representative of faith, what's more human than meeting a person's spiritual needs during times of personal need, such as warfare?"

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell