The year was 1969, and it was a typical lovely evening at Whiting Field,a Naval
Air Station situated near the town of Milton, Florida, about an hours drive more or less from Pensacola. I was on my way to the enlisted men’s club to see some friends and have a drink with them. It was a weekday, so it would be a nice quiet place to spend some time just talking about things. I had no idea that on this short walk I was going to take a fork in the road that would both enrich my life, and also teach me some valuable lessons that I needed to learn.
As I was passing the combination PX, Movie Theater, and Chapel structure, I noticed four men talking in front of the chapel entrance, each with a bible, and laughing. I guess it was the laughing that made me notice them. I approached them and asked them what group they belonged to, since I was interested in having some Christian fellowship. One of the men that I took to be sort of a leader of the group, introduced himself as John D, and then made the introduction with the other three men. All but one where like me stationed at Whiting, one was a man from the area, Ft Lauderdale I think. I learned that they belonged to a group called the ‘Navigators”, a non-denominational Christian group, who focused much of their attention in taking care of the needs of military men and women. I showed some interest, and they invited me to visit one of their homes that weekend, and since I was not on duty, I accepted.
The trip was well worth it. I was taken to the home of Don L that I took at the time as one of the leaders of the Navigators in that area. He had a lovely wife, whose name I have forgotten, but she was a very gracious lady who made us feel welcome. I was not preached at, but the Gospel was gently presented to me, and they were delighted to learn that I was already a Christian. The fellowship was good, and I was impressed by the married couples that I met. Over all they were a very intelligent group who truly showed how their faith brought a great deal of joy to their lives, and truly wanted to share it with others.
I suppose the fly in the ointment was that I was Catholic. Some in the Navigators did not have much use for the Catholic Church, but were not aggressive with me about it, though from the outset I knew in my heart that it was a problem for some.
John D and I became friends, and in fact are still in touch. I was impressed by him from the beginning. If there are men without guile, then John is one of them. He is a man of deep commitment, transparent in his faith, childlike in the true Gospel since of the word, and he never tried to change me in regards to my Catholic faith. Don L never did either. He never brought it up, and so I never knew what he thought of my Catholic faith, and I did not ask him.
I suppose you could call the group, at least at that time, more fundamentalist in their approach in their faith which I found intriguing and really not that much of a problem. I never was, no could I ever be that way in my faith, but it seemed to serve them well and I perceived a great deal of depth in them. Their talks were often well thought out, and I found them helpful in my own journey in deepening my faith in Christ and what that meant in my life.
I spent New Year’s of 1970 at a Navigator retreat, and enjoyed it very much. I remember singing the song “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing” at midnight, and thought what a wonderful way to start the New Year. It was there that I started to meet Navigators of a different mindset when dealing with my being Catholic. I remember one of the men, who was actually a leader, say the most ignorant thing to me about my faith. I just froze how could I answer, or respond, to such an ignorant man, so I did not. I just got up and went to another table. I suppose if I was older and more mature I would have been able to say something, but I doubt it would have mattered anyway. I suppose that was when the wedge was first inserted with the group. Sad, since it was only one man, but at the time I did not have the maturity to understand that, so I allowed it to affect me more than I think it should have.
I stayed for awhile longer with the group, and I suppose my friendship with John was one of the main reasons. He made such a deep impression on me with his faith that I just liked being around him. He always seemed to accept me and did not let my being Catholic get in the way of that.
So I finally left the Navigators after about being a part of the group for about six months or so. I don’t know what would have happened if I did not run into pockets of deep ignorance among the group, since I really did appreciate who they were, and what they were trying to accomplish. I am still friends with John and over the years have seen him. He still impresses me with his deep, mature, childlike faith in Christ, and I am honored to be his friend. Don L also is remembered with fondness…. who did have a very positive influence on my life.
One thing I have learned, it is easy to box in those of other faiths, and to be content with a narrow and ignorant understanding of who, and what they are. Knowing what it is like to be the brunt of that kind of thing, I have over the years tried not to make that mistake with others. There is already enough pain and misunderstanding in the world, why add to it? I love to study other faith traditions and have been enriched by it. Jesus is not a tribal deity. Tribal gods are owned by those who worship them. God on the other hand is owned by no one, and I doubt having a structure based on certain scripture quotes, can do justice to the mystery that is Christ, nor his relationship with the world, and the billions who are called by the Father to an eternal relationship of love.
The gifts of the Spirit that St Paul talks so much about seem to be widespread among people of all faiths and religions, so this leads me to believe that all men of good will who seek truth are my brothers and sisters on the journey. Those who aren’t on this road, well we are called to love and pray for them, not to brow beat and threatened. That approach does not work, never has, nor ever will. I suppose when Jesus said we are not to judge, he meant it. We judge from narrowness, blindness, and perhaps fear, while the judgments of God are true, based on mercy, compassion and a deep understanding of the depths of the human heart. I think I will go with God’s judgments.
So if you ever run into a Navigator and need good Christian fellowship, give them a chance. They may not be your cup of tea; on the other hand they just might be what you need. A loving, committed, close knit community, who care for one another and live a Christian life of real depth and maturity. Though if Catholic it may still be a problem.