Submerged deep beneath the waves, hidden in the darkness, where not a single ray of light penetrates, lies USS TOPEKA, its only sound, the indistinguishable propulsion of the submarine’s propellers.
As the “tip of the Navy’s spear” and first defense against America’s enemies, it silently conducts clandestine missions as part of the U.S. Navy’s elite Pacific 7th fleet. Operated by a crew of over a hundred sailors, forged together by duty, discipline, and love for country, they live together in a steel tube, connected only by radio and secret, intermittent e-mail communication with the outside world. In that unlikely place, in the confined solitude of a torpedo room, Chaplain Nathanael Gentilhomme found his pulpit.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL CALLING
“I felt called to the ministry at a young age but wasn’t sure of a specific direction.” But after meeting Army Chaplain Candidate Seth Hamilton in 2007 and prayerfully considering, Nathanael felt confident in his call to the chaplaincy and applied to the Army.
That confidence was quickly tested: “the Army just stopped returning my calls.” Undaunted, Nathanael saw God’s hand in it and within a year was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy, and on his way to Officer Development School in Newport, RI.
LEARNING THE ROPES
New to the military, Nathanael wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But after five long weeks of physical training and intense classroom sessions, he emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. “There was a tangible reason for my studies,” he says, “and I felt different inside.” Following his initial training, Nathanael returned to Bob Jones University for his final year of seminary to complete his Master’s of Divinity degree.
THE FIRST MISSION (FIELD)
Three years after graduating from BJU Seminary, Nathanael received his first orders to USS FRANK CABLE, a submarine tender homeported in Apra Harbor on the island of Guam. Because FRANK CABLE is a submarine tender, Nathanael ministered the gospel not only to Sailors onboard, but also to Navy divers who regularly performed repairs to submarine pipes, paneling, and “screws” (propellers). Since submarines do not have dedicated chaplains due to their relatively small crew size, Nathanael became the go-to chaplain for all the submarine crews that surfaced for repairs. It was during this time that Nathanael received his first invitation to descend into the deep.
MY COMFORT OR GOD’S KINGDOM?
“It’s not natural to be sealed inside a steel tube and submerge yourself! It takes faith in God and the engineers,” he laughs. “That was a little outside of my comfort zone.” Initially, Nathanael considered declining the offer, but these opportunities were, after all, why he was here. Once he accepted, “God opened up amazing counseling and evangelism opportunities. At one point, I found myself in the torpedo room, sharing the gospel with a Sailor struggling with all kinds of issues.” Later, the commanding officer approached Nathanael with a personal request. “He asked me personally if I would stay five more days to continue helping them with a Sailor I was counseling.” He wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of spending more time underwater, but his love for his Sailors and his Lord’s gospel propelled him forward.
“There have been times when I think ‘I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.’ But then I realize I wouldn’t have these opportunities—or access to them—if I were a civilian pastor. We need believers in the Navy Chaplain Corps to preach the gospel and disciple Christians in these unique environments.” So far Nathanael has accompanied four submarine crews, the longest being a two-week trek from San Diego, CA to Ketchikan, AK. Seeking ministry opportunities in uncomfortable environments has become a valuable lesson, learned while underwater.
When you invest in building relationships, that’s when the floodgates open to counseling and evangelism opportunities. If you join as a chaplain, you have to remember it’s not about you. There will be many opportunities when you’re not getting enough sleep, or are in an uncomfortable environment. But it’s about seeking first God’s kingdom.
LIVES IN CRISIS
As a chaplain, Nathanael regularly interacts with young men and women facing crises in their lives. Two of the most pressing counseling challenges Nathanael faces are marriages in danger and suicide. Young Sailors and Marines often marry quickly due to the unique dynamics of military life and the need to secure military housing and increased pay before they are deployed. “Too often, vows aren’t even exchanged.”
Suicide is also a well-known threat to military life, and Nathanael has done extensive counseling with service members struggling in this area. One particular Marine who Nathanael counseled was considering suicide and was extremely hostile towards God. Through many tough, one-on-one discussions, Nathanael was able to share the gospel, and the Marine has begun reading the Bible for himself and asking important questions as Nathanael continues to work and pray with him.
REMAINING FAITHFUL AMIDST COMPROMISE
In today’s armed forces, one of the most challenging struggles for chaplains is the temptation to compromise. To those considering the chaplain ministry, Nathanael counsels: “Even though you’re going in as a chaplain, firm up what you believe about God; Sailors and Marines ask hard questions. There will be hard conversations. Some chaplains have compromised. There’s definitely that temptation.” Chaplain culture can be very ecumenical. In such an environment, standing firmly for the truth of the gospel is sometimes viewed unfavorably. “You will be tested. You will be tried,” Nathanael warns.
THE BEST TRAINING GROUND FOR SERVICE
Looking back, Nathanael sees clearly how Bob Jones University prepared him for this ministry. He is often reminded of the principles he learned in seminary, specifically: “Every problem of man can come back to the Bible,” he says. “So many of the problems the Sailors and Marines deal with are connected to their spiritual lives, and they often don’t get good direction or help.” In his ministry, Nathanael is reminded of the words of Acts 26:18, “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.”
ALL-EXPENSE PAID MINISTRY
To minister in many mission fields, it takes years of deputation travel to raise funds. For Nathanael, the US Navy has completely “footed the bill” for his missionary service around the globe. Nathanael has circled the globe in his time with the Navy, visiting Guam, Norway, India, Japan, Dubai, the Marshall Islands, the Philippines and Diego Garcia (home to “the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.”). In all this time, I Peter 3:15 has taken on special meaning to him: “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” This is foundational for chaplains. Whether bearing witness of Christ’s saving work to a troubled Sailor far below the surface or proclaiming the gospel to a group of Marines gathered in the middle of a Norwegian farmer’s field after a tough construction project, Nathanael is reminded of his heavenly commission: “in everything, the gospel is the main thing.” To Nathanael, his Commander in Chief has given him the ultimate mission, to take the good news of the gospel to those unlikely mission fields far below the surface.