It is 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and while most of us are just beginning our Sabbath, San Diego’s MCRD, or Marine Corps Recruit Depot, has been a beehive of activity for hours. Reveille blew before dawn, chow has been served to thousands, and now, while some march to the classic cadence that has echoed on the parade grounds for decades – for others it’s time for church.
The young man in the glasses is attending his first church service since coming to MCRD. He’s been here less than a week. This is his first Sunday on base. Last Sunday his world was very different. He had a lot more hair, and maybe he slept in. Perhaps his friends had a party to send him off to “the Corps.” This morning he is alone – just another Recruit in a room filled with over 300 young men just like him.
Gene Smith has seen thousands of young men in the years he has represented the Navigators at MCRD. He began alone, teaching the “Steps to Christ” class to hundreds of Recruits packed into a small theater in McDougall Hall. “We only had a white board then,” he recalls, “trying to hold it high enough so everyone could see it. Now we use PowerPoint and the projection screen for our scripture and worship choruses.”
He also has help.
“God laid on my heart to expand,” he says, “having men from various churches, that God has brought to us, to ask the Recruits what they can pray for. The greatest challenge is loneliness.”
The young man in the glasses is very lonely. He hasn’t been here long enough to make any real friends, just other Recruits who share the task of allowing themselves to be transformed into Marines. It isn’t easy becoming one of the “few good men,” but he will survive. He will be stronger when he leaves than when he arrived – stronger than he knows.
John Schooler leads the Prayer Partners on this Sunday. He moves around the room purposefully, asking Recruits how he can pray for them, pulling together a small group to support each other in a prayer for their safety. His comments are direct and intense, and he connects personally with each member of the group before moving on to meet other needs.
“My prayer,” he says, “is for the discernment to know what the Lord’s mission is for each of these men, how it fits in with their DI’s mission, and the overall Marine Corps mission for their lives.”
John explains carefully to the day’s volunteers the importance of praying for the Recruit within the context of the MCRD experience. “Don’t get in the way of what the Marines are doing,” he explains. “They need to know their DI’s love them, and that they should be praying for their DI.”
The young man in the glasses is called to prayer – for himself. He has listened to a message of comradeship, mission and sacrifice. He has been moved, although he works hard to hide his tears. His fingers creep timidly above his stiffened shoulders as the speaker asks, “If you will accept Jesus’ sacrifice and commit your life to Him, will you raise your hand?” Throughout the room, hands fill the air – some held high, others raised in quick agreement, then down again.
Both John and Gene agree that the work they are doing through Navigators and the “Steps to Christ” class makes for a better Marine upon graduation. “Our greatest challenge is the constantly changing faces,” Gene adds. “Thirty-one thousand Recruits went through the class last year. Some are repeat visitors, but some we only see once or twice. Even if only 20% of those go on and labor, it can mean so much.”
John readies his prayer team to make the most of their time with the Recruits, especially those who are new believers. “Get them into a book of the Bible,” he counsels. “Then encourage them to get together with other Christians on base during the week, and meet back in class on Sunday morning. Be careful what they put in their heads, and be ready if others criticize their decision for Christ.”
The young man in the glasses is very concerned what others might think, and he is hesitant to leave his chair while others move to pray one-on-one with counselors. He looks at his praying comrades, then at those still seated, then back to those praying. Finally, the call of the Holy Spirit is stronger than his own fears and he moves to pray – standing stiffly at attention. The prayer partner speaks softly to him, and as he does the young man’s body relaxes, slowly, until he is leaning into the volunteer’s embrace, his shoulders shuddering as he releases his anxieties and his tears at the foot of the Cross.
It is a story played out each Sunday morning – early. Young men away from home, some for the first time in their lives, lonely, in a world very different from the ones they’ve left behind. In an hour and a half they will be Recruits once more. They will run to their place in formation, standing perfectly straight, eyes front, as their DI shouts orders in their ear. They will march, they will shout cadence, they preface and end almost every sentence with a crisp “sir.” In a few short weeks they will proudly wear the name – Marine. They will be part of a few good men.
For now, however, they are very much like the rest of us – in need of encouragement and prayer. Thanks to men like Gene Smith and John Schooler, the Navigators, and the volunteers of the “Steps to Christ” class, these Recruits are getting it.
For more information about the ministry, call Gene Smith at (858)780-8772.