During the first week of December 2016, Chaplain Adam Erwin (LTJG), US Navy Reserves, received a call from Captain Gregory Todd, Chief of Coast Guard Chaplains. The call was an invitation to be the Command Chaplain aboard the USCGC Polar Star (an icebreaker) on a mission to deploy to the South Pole on Operation Deep Freeze 2017. The mission was to deliver the annual resupply to the Antarctic bases. His pastoral and religious support of the Polar Star‘s crew of 150 was vital during their months-long deployment to one of the world’s harshest and most remote environments. What made this invitation so special is, there are only about 50 Navy Chaplains assigned to the whole Coast Guard, and 11 of those are Reservists. (Navy Chaplains are not only assigned to Navy units, but also to Marine Corps and Coast Guard units.)
Arriving on board the Polar Star in Sydney, Australia in time for the world-famous New Year’s Fireworks Display, Chaplain Erwin quickly got acquainted with the ship, the crew, and the command. The Captain and Executive Officer were very supportive of his ministry, and welcomed him aboard their ship to minister to their crew. Chaplain Erwin was blessed to work under the supervision of two officers who were leaders with faith. The Captain of the Polar Star specifically requested an evening prayer asking for safe guidance through the area, known as the Roaring 40’s, as well as a prayer for breaking the ice.
With seeing Australia, Antarctica, New Zealand, and also Hawai’i and Tahiti, as well as the Antarctic, life seemed pretty good. Why would a crew need a chaplain? This is a Coast Guard crew. This is not a vacation. It’s harsh duty far from home in one of the most extreme, deadly, and isolated areas on the entire Earth. Speaking of the chaplain, the ship’s Executive Officer said, “We’re literally at one of the most remote and desolate places on the planet. If, and when, there are emergencies, we need someone who can manage that and take care of the crew, as well as meeting their spiritual needs.”
The responsibilities of the chaplain are many and varied. On this deployment Chaplain Erwin provided divine services with communion, evening prayers, Sunday services, ministered to the homesick, those who have loved ones die during the deployment, counseled people for any number of reasons, worked with and directed a choir, and provide deck plate ministry; walking around the ship, talking to the crew, engaging them in conversation, listening to their concerns (personal or professional), and being among them. Chaplain Erwin also supervised the ministry of ‘lay leaders’. These are sailors who are approved to provide various ministries like Bible studies and worship leaders.
Chaplain Erwin said, “Jesus put on flesh, and walked among us, so that He could minister to us. In the same way, I put off my civilian clothes and my Navy khakis, put on Coast Guard blues, and walked among the crew, being with them, so that I could minister to them in their needs and in their lives.”
As a rule, Commanders really appreciate the presence and role of chaplain. The Commander of the Polar Star said of Chaplain Erwin, “We do things no other ship does. We go places no other ship goes. We experience things that stretch us and the ship. Chaps really earned his pay. We had some tough situations, and we’re very glad he was along with us.”
When asked what it felt like to be one of the less than 100 pastors to minister at the southern-most church in the world, Chaplain Erwin said, “First, the places are neat, but there’s no place like home. Family is more important than travel, and more important than ministry. Second, the places are merely beautiful creation-pieces of God’s, but they are where people are, people who need the ministry of the chaplain. That’s what being a chaplain is about…is being that spiritual presence in people’s lives, taking care of them, listening to them, engaging them where it matters with what matters. Preaching, teaching, and worship are indispensable. The sailors who are on watch at 0200 (2:00 AM) in the morning and stressed over home life they last saw 4 months ago, need someone to listen to their story, join them where they are, and bring peace, and good news to their lives. I’m a chaplain not for the physical places I go, but the spiritual places God sends me to in order to bring His presence, peace, wholeness, and Good News.”
(The US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is the only heavy-icebreaker in the United States. It is an integral part of the annual resupply of McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Operation DEEP FREEZE. This operation, and the Polar Star’s role in Antarctica, was a highlight of the recent television series “Antarctica: Continent 7” produced and aired by National Geographic.)
(Chaplain Erwin is an ordained minister in the LIfepoint Conference. He also holds a Doctorate of Ministry degree from in Erskine Seminary. He, his wife Kuhiwa, and son Alrich, reside in Honea Path, South Carolina.)
By: Chaplain Adam Erwin