Latter-day Saints at Sea

USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74)
Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob L Greenberg

Date: 03.19.2019
Posted: 03.19.2019 02:48
News ID: 314757

On any given Sunday, the catapults above the ship’s chapel roar and clang with the sounds of with aircraft accelerating to almost 200 mph before taking off from the flight deck. Religious services and their leaders often have to compete with the immense pressure of the rushing steam overhead for quiet. Lay leaders have been bestowed with the responsibility to guide members of their faith group, and Lt. Aure Stewart prides himself in his ability to speak the gospel, despite the cacophony above.

As he tears slices of bread from one of the ship’s galleys and pours water into small cups, Stewart quietly hums a tune from his hymn book. The sacrament he is preparing is for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lay service that he has lead since January 2019. As congregants file in, they’re greeted with a hearty smile in the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the ship’s chapel.

Stewart, from Portsmouth, Virginia, the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis’ (CVN 74) radiation health officer, begins every lay service with a brief discussion about the future of the congregation, called a ward, and then the opening prayer. All in attendance bow their heads, thanking God and blessing their families.

“I was born into the church,” said Stewart. “Before I joined the Navy, I was a missionary in Japan near Misawa Air Force Base teaching English and spreading the church’s message for two years. Sure, there were some long and difficult days there, and I’ve had doors slammed in my face, but all of the positives outweigh the negatives with missionary work.”

Like some religions, Stewart said stereotypes exist.

“Some people may think it’s a cult, and I think that is due to a lack of understanding,” said Stewart. “Imaginations run wild when people don’t know what happens behind closed doors, especially when trying to distinguish between what is sacred and what is secret. People will naturally come [to the lay service] if they’re curious, and I’m here to answer any question.”

After a Sailor sits behind an electric piano, he starts playing a hymn that Stewart has selected. The churchgoers all join in song, their voices of different pitches and confidence levels, but finding harmony.

They’re led in the blessing of bread then water to renew covenants and promises to God, followed by personal reflection time, where they pray and contemplate. As a testament to the modern age and despite the antiquity of many religions, most of the Sailors read an electronic copy of the scripture on their phones.

“It’s like filling up a spiritual canteen for the week,” said Stewart. “Work [aboard the ship] can be difficult and tiring, but I see that the Sailors that attend get refreshed.”

Stewart’s sentiments about the restorative benefits of prayer are echoed by his fellows.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air every week,” said Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Darrel Forney, from Kelso, Washington, assigned to the IM-3 division of the John C. Stennis’ Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Division (AIMD) and in a temporary-assigned duty status from the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). “It’s a chance to refresh and restart. Praying helps me maintain strength through integrity.”

Staying strong through prayer offered in Stewart’s lay service is a common sentiment confirmed by other Mormons aboard.

“It really helps boost me throughout the week,” said Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Julia Zollinger, from Portland, Oregon, assigned to the reactor laboratories division of the John C. Stennis’ Reactor department. “Praying reminds me that the world is bigger than the reactor department because it can be tough down there. It’s great to hear stories from the group.”

With thousands of Sailors assigned to and embarked aboard the John C. Stennis, sometimes Sailors might feel lost in the crowd.

“Having the chance to meet with our group and hear worship services helps me feel like I’m not alone,” said Operations Specialist 1st Class Dave McCormick, from Commerce, Texas, who works in the Combat Direction Center aboard the John C. Stennis. “It’s so refreshing, in contrast to the secular or business-like nature of work.”

In a sea of more than 5,000 Sailors, finding one’s own sanctuary aboard an aircraft carrier can be a challenge. Supported by the ship’s chaplains, lay leaders like Stewart work to provide a sense of community and facilitate prayer to Sailors at sea, furthering cohesion and solidarity amongst the crew.

The John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group is deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

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