SAN DIEGO (BP) – Serving in the military is “noble and good,” says Justin Woods, but it’s not enough for some of the midshipmen at the 4,400-student U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
A cadre of the 150 students involved with Baptist Collegiate Ministries at the Naval Academy have been going on mission to San Diego each summer for the last five years. There were 22 students on the team this summer.
“The military isn’t sufficient to satisfy restoration and peace with God,” Woods, the BCM director at the Naval Academy, told Baptist Press.
“It’s not designed to satisfy our deepest needs. It can never actually satisfy our soul. We ultimately find our peace and purpose in relationship with Jesus.”
Woods, who also serves as an Air Force Reserves chaplain and collegiate military catalyst for the North American Mission Board, has been BCM director at the Naval Academy since 2010.
“During the school year I am there to make disciples who make disciples,” Woods said. “We serve as a missional outreach for local churches.”
“My goal is to set people on fire for the glory of God and launch them into the farthest corners of the Navy and Marine Corps,” Woods continued. “The ones I started with in 2010 would just now be hitting majors in the Marines, lieutenant commanders in the Navy.”
Despite a rigorous and “grueling” academic schedule, according to Woods, the 150 BCM students find time to grow in their relationship with God.
“They are 100 percent training to be Navy and Marine Corps officers,” Woods said. “In addition, we host weekly Bible studies that the chaplains supervise. The students and others come seeking to find God or worship God. They often find hope beyond the rat race and grind of academics.
“The whole point is to be light in a dark place in terms of a gospel presence,” said Woods.
During the two weeks, the BCM midshipmen are in San Diego, they spend their mornings studying spiritual disciplines and spiritual leadership.
Their afternoons are spent in local ministry through Southern Baptist churches, such as helping organize and work in the food pantry at Old Town Community Church; helping in a basketball camp led by Kaleo Church; engaging college students through Compass Church’s many evangelistic outreaches, such as pick-up volleyball games at the beach, and more.
The evening hours are reserved for get-togethers with higher-ranking Navy and Marine Corps officers who are Christians.
“There is a large military presence in San Diego so in all likelihood the students will find themselves here at some point in their career,” Woods said. “So having mentors and local church connections accelerates discipleship. … A lot of military officers who are former [BCM] students share their experiences and stories.”
Despite the sun of Southern California, San Diego can be a very dark place spiritually, Woods said. The North American Mission Board reports more than 86 percent of the entire state’s residents have no connection to Jesus. A sense of hopelessness runs rampant through bleak neighborhoods. The military has a massive presence in Southern California.
The mission team arrived on June 11 and immediately began serving Mesa View Baptist Church, a new plant that merged with a church down to its last few elderly members. Last year’s BCM team had helped in the transition.
“We helped restore dignity to a dying church,” Woods said. “It’s really cool to see a dilapidated building come back life and spiritual health, a growing congregation.”
The team also visited the SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim.
“That was a real different experience for them,” Woods said. “It spawned lots of conversation.”
They helped clean Old Town Community Church, which had housed 80 Ukrainian refugees for two weeks.
“They did a lot for us,” Executive Pastor Don Biadog Jr. told Baptist Press. “They’re aggressive in sharing the gospel.”
Emma Peck of Augusta, Georgia, 20, was on her second trip with the mission team.
“It was incredible, life-changing. It taught me how to live out my faith in my day-to-day life,” Peck said of her first trip. “I didn’t know you could interact with the world in a Christian manner.
“I used to think faith was only reading and praying,” Peck continued. “Now I’ve learned how to bring Christianity into all my decision-making. It’s not only a habit change; it’s a behavior change.”
As with elsewhere in life, in the military the gospel spreads through family, friends and co-workers, rather than in using the power of an officer’s rank, Peck said.
“By showing people in the military we care about them, share our joy and love of life, we set the example and people are drawn to that,” she explained. “Set an example by how you live out your life.”
Johnathan Tully, 21, of Piedmont, Oklahoma, a fourth-year student, is planning to be a pilot. This was his second BCM mission trip and his first time attending an SBC annual meeting.
“It was amazing to talk to believers who had devoted their lives to Christ,” Tully told Baptist Press. “That was really encouraging to me.”
Though reared in a Christian home, Tully admits he didn’t take his faith seriously until after high school graduation. “My girlfriend asked me, ‘Do you really know Jesus?’ I wasn’t able to tell her I did.”
He initially was drawn to the BCM because “they were a committed group of believers who held each other accountable,” Tully said. “Everyone really has a genuine love for each other.
“I’ve learned you have to be really confident in your faith, to be bold as you share. The light that is the gospel can penetrate the darkness. That darkness is a place without Jesus, full of sin and lost people.”
Tully said he was glad to return to San Diego for this year’s mission trip.
“It was so encouraging to hear even more stories about how living a life close to God is the real ‘good’ life,” the midshipman said. “The trip also opened my eyes to how close I am to becoming a spiritual leader in the fleet!”
Woods, coordinates the mission trips with Jeremy Aylett, the NAMB Send City missionary in San Diego.
“Because the military is such a big part of San Diego County, we think it’s very strategic what Justin is doing,” Aylett said. “They are such hard workers. They do whatever is needed to help the church they’re working with. “Their military training as Naval officers means they’re willing to take orders, to jump in and get after it. We love them!”