Serving in San Juan

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 21st. Thanks for listening to WORLD Radio today. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a visit with a Navy Chaplain stationed at a U.S. Coast Guard Base. Wait a minute, is that right?

BASHAM: It is. I think the United States Navy Chaplain Corps serves not only the Navy, but also the Marines and the Coast Guard. 

REICHARD: Well, all right then! WORLD Radio’s Laura Edghill travelled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and brought back this report. Anchors Aweigh!

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: It’s a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon in San Juan. The U.S. Coast Guard station juts out on a point near the main shipping and cruise port. A smiling guard stands watch over the entrance to the base. Six large cutters are lined up in a neat row along the pier. 

CRAIG: Hi, I’m Barrett Craig. I’m a Chaplain in the United States Navy currently serving the Coast Guard in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Lieutenant Craig sports the kind of easy grin that makes you an instant friend. He’s tall and animated, gesturing frequently as he describes the Coast Guard work that goes on in San Juan.

CRAIG: ‘Cuz we’re responsible for search and rescue, you know? … We’re responsible for environmental clean-ups. And we had, I think between Hurricane Maria and Irma, about 900 vessels that we, that we had to recover.

But these Coast Guardsmen are also responsible for patrolling the entire Eastern Caribbean for drug runners and other illegal activity. Even while docked, the cutters are noisy and filled with activity. A small powerboat zips through the harbor and glides up a ramp into the back of one of the cutters. Like something out of a spy movie, the ramp closes behind it, sealing the hull again. 

CRAIG: So what you’re looking at here is what’s called an O-T-H or “Over the Horizon” boat. Now these are the ones that catch the bad guys.

He describes how the family network is tight and supportive. Most of the Coast Guardsmen live in a nearby housing development where spouses and children form a thriving community. That community even spills over onto the base, as the lieutenant’s wife and three young children are all visiting him at work on this day. His 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old adopted Ethiopian twins chatter comfortably and take turns holding their dad’s hand as he walks the base. 

But the Coast Guard work can be very stressful for the families.

CRAIG: This is a very demanding job for these guys. I mean, they are, they are busy. What you’re seeing here on the waterfront, they are the busiest part of Sector San Juan. 

The schedule is grueling—three weeks out at sea, three weeks back. Repeat. 

CRAIG: And as you can imagine, that’s really challenging on families, marriages, just their own personal spiritual resilience.

That means that the chaplain’s work is often weighty and filled with heartbreak. In the course of a day he can go from counseling a man whose world has just fallen apart, to celebrating the birth of another’s new baby. The emotions are extreme, the situations life or death.

Just recently Lieutenant Craig was rushed out to counsel a crew on one of the deployed cutters. Their smaller pursuit vessel overturned during a routine drug bust. Everyone survived, but it shook them up enough to request spiritual back-up. But it’s the ongoing stresses that fill his office most days.

CRAIG: They come into my office regularly, you know, with, like I said work-related issues, you know, relationship issues, personal anxiety issues, and I can immediately enter into their world and enter into, you know, the challenges that they’re facing with the gospel! 

In addition to keeping office hours on land, Lieutenant Craig also spends time on board the cutters while they’re deployed.

CRAIG: A lot of these coast guardsmen, will hold Bible studies on, on the ships and I’ll sit and, uh, and coach them, disciple them.

Lieutenant Craig also serves in a senior advisory role. He starts every morning in a leadership team meeting with the base captain. They discuss everyday operations but also more complicated personnel and strategic issues. Craig has a unique opportunity to speak biblical truth into those conversations. He also brings spiritual guidance to his work on the Suicide Prevention Council, the Sexual Assault Response Council, and many others.

CRAIG: I’m part of the Morale Committee, Leadership Committee, Force Preservation Board… 

In a sea of often conflicting faith backgrounds, Lieutenant Craig recognizes there is a dynamic tension in his work.

CRAIG: The tension is, um, you’re an institutional pastor, you know? That’s what a chaplain is. It’s kind of an institutional pastor, right? It’s not a local church. You know, I don’t have pastoral authority over the people.

The more than 800 chaplains in the Navy Corps represent a variety of faiths including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian. He points to his collar, where each side displays a pin. One is a Christian cross, the other, his Naval officer insignia.

CRAIG: You’re constantly trying to balance that you are, um. You’re in the military wearing this side of the collar, ensuring, you know, religious liberty for your people. At the same time, you’re a, I’m wearing this side of the shoulder where I’m a Bible-believing, gospel-centered evangelical that wants to make the beauty of Christ known to my military members, right?

For WORLD radio, I’m Laura Edghill reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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