As the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Star sailed into McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, in January, my thoughts were on the endless and barren beauty enveloping me, the crew and the ship. The frozen sea and ice-covered mountains seemed to go on forever.
The Polar Star is the United States’ sole heavy ice-breaker and deploys annually to Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze to help resupply almost a thousand scientists and support personnel at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. research station on the continent. I was chosen to serve as the ship’s chaplain for three months, starting in December 2018.
The Polar Star has more than 150 crew members. A majority don’t consider themselves religious.
As a chaplain, I have four core functions: provide, facilitate, care and advise. I performed all four roles during my deployment. I provided weekly worship services and Bible studies for the crew. To support people of other faiths, I trained lay leaders from those groups to care for the religious needs of their own. I provided one-on-one, confidential counseling to more than a third of the ship’s crew and led more than 10 training sessions on topics such as stress management, suicide awareness and prevention, healthy communication, conflict management and leadership development. Lastly, I had numerous opportunities to meet with the commanding officer, executive officer and senior enlisted leader to discuss the crew’s morale.
Antarctica is renowned for its dangerous and inhospitable environment. Musician Mark Hoppus said, “Antarctica is otherworldly, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Stark, cold, beautiful desolation.” Job 38:29-30 seems to describe a place like Antarctica this way, “From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven? The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.”
Given the uniqueness of the frozen continent, I was able to use my surroundings to invoke spiritual themes and truths. Three evenings a week, I shared prayers and meditations over the ship’s intercom. Since many aboard weren’t people of faith, I had to look for unique opportunities to share deeper spiritual realities. The crew was surrounded by all of this wild beauty, and I regularly used God’s creation to point them to something bigger. Here is one of the evening meditations I shared with the crew:
Rear Admiral George Dufek directed the U.S. Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze program from 1955 to 1959. He was also the first American to set foot on the South Pole. In 1957 he said, “An inscription now carved in our own chapel at McMurdo Sound bears these words: ‘In seeking to unveil the Pole, they found the hidden things of God.’ Perhaps God has hidden so that men might discover.”
There’s something within us that marvels at the wonders around us. Whether it’s gazing out upon the surrounding mountains and ice or delighting in the wildlife that frolics near the waters fore and aft, perhaps God has gifted us these unique sights and experiences so that we might discover and enjoy him.
This is the essence of good missiology — understanding the surrounding culture and finding elements within it to communicate and point to the hope of the gospel. Military chaplaincy is a true missiological ministry.
I estimate that 75 percent of service personnel I counsel do not come from a faith perspective. They endure enormous stresses, and the operational tempo of deployments compound these stresses, especially as they’re away from loved ones for long periods of time. My job is simply to provide a ministry of presence and be willing and ready to listen for opportunities to share a bigger and better hope because of God’s endless love through Jesus. It’s an incredible privilege. It’s why I felt called to join this ministry.
Another highlight of my deployment was leading worship and preaching at the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station. The Chapel of the Snows is the southernmost chapel in the world.
When Jesus commanded us to go and proclaim the gospel to “the ends of the earth,” I’ve literally been there. As I shared God’s Word and the hope of Jesus in this unique place, I couldn’t help but feel the joy and excitement of fulfilling the Great Commission in this unique way.
During the deployment, I reflected upon numerous themes about life and ministry. Perhaps one that had the greatest impact was the site of a large wooden cross erected at McMurdo Sound in 1902.
The cross is enormous, and you can see if from miles away as you approach McMurdo Station. Here you are in this barren, ice-covered expanse feeling so small and at times so alone, and there’s this symbol of beauty rising out of the barren ice and rock. That seems to sum up much of our journey with Jesus. There are times when life feels like a vast and endless wasteland with pain, disappointment and loss. But our eyes are drawn to this cross, so stark against the inhospitable background. And in that cross-directed glance, there’s a glimmer of hope because of the God of the cross, because of the God who put on flesh to walk with us through that pain, disappointment and loss. That’s my calling as a chaplain — to point people to the cross and to be a purveyor of hope. What an adventure!
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Chief of Naval Operations, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps, or of the Commandant of the Coast Guard or the U.S. Coast Guard.
Jonathan Alexander, Navy Chaplain Lieutenant
Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Jonathan Alexander serves as the command chaplain for U.S. Coast Guard Base National Capital Region and Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Before joining the Navy, he served for 10 years as senior pastor of Northshore Community Church, Kirkland, Washington (Converge Northwest). In 2016, he and his wife, Paige, felt called to chaplaincy ministry with the military. He is endorsed by Converge, and as a Navy chaplain, serves with the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.