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Carrier chaplain wants others ‘to see God in me’
Mickey Noah, Baptist Press
July 15, 2011
7 MIN READ TIME

Carrier chaplain wants others ‘to see God in me’

Carrier chaplain wants others ‘to see God in me’
Mickey Noah, Baptist Press
July 15, 2011

NORFOLK, Va.

— Southern Baptist chaplain Fred Holcombe Jr. pastors a flock numbering

3,500-5,800 people — the population of a small town. But this “town” is more

than 18 stories high, 1,123 feet long, 200 feet wide and takes up 4 1/2 acres.

When fully loaded, this town weighs in at 95,000 tons — yet it floats.

It is the USS Enterprise, the “Big E” — the world’s first nuclear-powered

aircraft carrier and, when launched in 1962, the longest naval vessel in the

world. Its home port is Norfolk, Va.,

where the Big E has left for one of her final six-month deployments before she

is scheduled to be decommissioned — after 51 years of service — in 2013.

NAMB photo

Southern Baptist chaplain Fred Holcombe (Lt. Cmdr.) serves as one of four U.S. Navy chaplains ministering to the thousands of sailors on the USS Enterprise. See video.

But until then, Lt. Cmdr. Holcombe, 47, has a full-time job to do. Fortunately,

he’s not the only chaplain on the Big E. There are three others — the command

chaplain who is Presbyterian, a Catholic priest and another Southern Baptist

chaplain.

“The old saying on a ship is that every day is Monday except Sunday,” Holcombe

said. “On Sundays, we obviously have church. In fact, we have many, many

different services go on each Sunday.” As a chaplain, Holcombe said he not only

prepares weekly sermons but his mission is to share the gospel and take care of

his floating flock, most of whom average 18-25 years of age.

Holcombe assists Enterprise crew members with any kind of issue they might have

— from a sailor who’s run afoul of his chain of command, to helping someone

salvage or maintain a marriage, to even talking some sailors out of committing

suicide. He also spends time just visiting the aircraft carrier’s living and

work areas — every nook and cranny — of the Big E, no small feat when you

consider it spans the length of five football fields.

“With all the spaces we have on board the ship, there’s always somebody to go

visit,” Holcombe said, “and they all want a visit from the chaplain, even the

folks in the (nuclear)] reactors and other places you may not think a chaplain

would typically go. But we’re always welcomed and well-received because they’re

happy somebody’s coming in to see them.”

U.S. Navy photo

The USS Enterprise, or the “Big E” as its known in the military, is the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. When launched in 1962 it was the longest naval vessel in the world spanning the length of five football fields.

For six months, it’s a ministry that spans 24 hours a day, seven days a week

ministry.

There’s no wife, kids or house to go home to each night,

just the claustrophobic close quarters of a tiny stateroom Holcombe shares with

another officer — a complete stranger at the

beginning of the six-month voyage but certainly not at its end.

“You have to have a very forgiving spirit of the people around you,” Holcombe

said. “You tolerate what they do and they tolerate what you do. There’s a

camaraderie that is built and tested in a refining fire. It’s amazing to watch

the interpersonal relationships that go on and how an individual begins to grow

close and the word ‘shipmates’ becomes a term of endearment, not a derogatory

one.

“As a chaplain, there are times you feel like you can never be off, you always

have to be on. Yet (crew members) see who you are, and I can tell you I want

them to see God in me. I want them to see a person who is genuine … even with

all my bumps, bruises, warts and scars.”

What earns military chaplains the right to be heard, Holcombe said, is the very

fact that they are present and accounted for among their soldiers, airmen or

sailors — as in the case of the USS Enterprise.

“The saying is true that people don’t care what you have to say or what you

know until they know how much you care,” Holcombe said. “The ship’s crew knows

I’m there enduring the same things they are — the separation from their

families, the hardships and the long hours. They work 24-36 hours straight

sometimes because that’s what it takes to get the job done.

“The American people would be absolutely amazed and astonished and proud of

these kids — their sons and daughters — serving on the Enterprise.”

“Orchestrated chaos” is how Holcombe describes activity on the Enterprise’s

flight deck, day or night. Imagine flying in to land on the Big E’s deck on a

moonless night when the only light for 100 miles is the carrier’s landing

lights. To a pilot, the landing deck may look like a floating postage stamp as

the aircraft carrier — although mammoth — pitches to and fro at the mercy of a

much larger ocean.

“You have so many people moving around doing so many different things, if you

go up on the flight deck you’d better keep your head on a swivel,” Holcombe

said. “You’re constantly looking around — over your shoulder, behind you, in

front of you.”

The Navy chaplain believes the real unsung heroes of the Navy are the military

spouses — both men and women — who keep the home fires burning.

“When you think about leaving your home for six months and you’re married,

there are things that happen,” Holcombe said. “You leave one person and when

you go back home, something mysterious has happened. You’ve changed and so has

your spouse. So you begin to have these anxieties of the reunion because you

wonder how she has changed, what’s she done and how you have changed in ways

you may not even recognize.

“The amazing thing about my wife Wendy is that she is just as sold out to do

this for God as I am,” Holcombe said. “I think that is such a quality in her

life that God is able to give her the strength and dependence on Him to endure

the separations and the hardships we have.”

Back home in Norfolk, they have two

sons — Brent, 20, and William, 9 — who also endure the long months without

their dad’s presence. Fred and Wendy celebrated 16 years of marriage in May

when he was deployed somewhere on the other side of the world serving his

country, but most important, serving God.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah writes for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). NAMB serves

as the endorsing entity for more than 1,350 military chaplains serving throughout

the world. In addition, NAMB commissions more than 5,000 missionaries

throughout North America.)