ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA (BNM) – Matthew A. Harris serves as 11th District Chaplain in the United States Coast Guard, with the rank of Lt. Cmdr, a Southern Baptist chaplain. He is a native of Blanco, NM, a small community in San Juan County. He and his family maintain their membership at First Baptist Church, Aztec, the church where Harris was ordained and later commissioned for chaplaincy.
In 2001, Harris enlisted in the United States Coast Guard in Albuquerque for 4.5 years. As he was finishing 4 years, he had “a moment of clarity,” he said. During prayer one day, Harris said he “expressed thanks for what He had given me through the service that established discipline and the opportunity to finish my education. I asked, ‘How can I serve you fully with everything you have given to me?’”
Harris said God led him to serve as a chaplain so he could use his military service experience and education to serve Him. Harris had finished a bachelor’s degree while in the USCG but needed a Master of Divinity degree to serve as a chaplain. Because he had a GI Bill, he got out of service, joined the Chaplain Candidate Program with the Navy and headed to seminary. After seminary, he served in the Navy Reserves as a chaplain for 2 years then went on active duty. He is currently serving in the USCG. All USCG chaplains are Navy chaplains. They serve three years at a time then return to the Navy.
Harris’ first duty station was at Great Lakes Naval Base where he served as one of four staff chaplains to a student population of 4,000. His duties included pastoral counseling, after-hours emergency response, and preaching at the base chapel most Sundays for 3 years.
Harris explained that in his current ministry, “I serve over 3,000 Coast Guardsmen spread across eight hours of California shoreline from Monterey to Humboldt Bay. One particular unit requires 7 hours roundtrip to get to and is located in an isolated old logging community on the coast. Ministry there is always plentiful. New members coming into the service are adjusting to living in a remote area away from family; all the members have little access to medical care (especially mental health) and have to drive hours to get specialized care, not to mention that the station is in an economically depressed area. My visits are always welcomed by the crew because they can privately talk to me about their concerns. I sit on a bench on the station grounds overlooking the water, listen, and pray for those that come. Those brief encounters help restore or add meaning to their lives.”
Chaplains receive a dignitary-type welcome when on unit visits and are easily recognized by the religious insignia on their uniforms. In the case of Christian chaplains, it is a cross. In addition to ministry responsibilities of preaching, conducting Bible studies and offering pastoral counseling, chaplains go to or go with service members wherever they serve.
“While with the Seabees,” Harris said,” I went all over Asia visiting service members working in detachments in the Philippines, Cambodia, Japan, Timor Leste, and Diego Garcia. I heard their confessions in some ways, the things they struggled with. It relieved the pressures of long workdays in an austere environment. Now serving in the Coast Guard, I am far from Asia, but I am on the road 40+ days a year making sure Coasties have access to pastoral care. It is a ministry of presence.”
“On current visits to the Coast Guard stations, we spend time with the crew and leaders to establish trust, Harris said. “After addressing the whole group with a message of hope, I offer a five-minute devotion from the Bible on whatever God lays on my heart. I also make my rounds of the spaces to see who might want to talk and to hear stories about their life. Before departing, I spend time with the leaders. It can be lonely at the top. I take time to sit down and hear them, not to solve problems but to let them talk and process.”
He shared a story of a sailor in the remote location of Timor Leste who had questions after listening to his re-deployment brief. The sailor pursued him through long conversation about what it would take to be a Christian. “I led him to Christ. It was a God moment, not one of coercion. He was seeking. He was ready.”
Harris is endorsed by the North American Mission Board. According to www.namb.net, “Endorsement…is an official statement that affirms to a…certifying organization that the chaplain is a called and qualified religious leader who is an active member in good standing with a local church of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
First Baptist Church, Aztec, guided Harris and his wife through the endorsement process, taking its own steps to examine, equip and commission him for ministry before asking for NAMB’s endorsement. At the time, a NAMB representative expressed to the church’s former pastor, Kevin Parker, that NAMB had not had a local church take such a thorough approach to vetting a candidate before contacting it about endorsement. The representative expressed appreciation for the church family’s intentionality.
The Harris family attends The Realm Church, Oakland, California, a Southern Baptist church plant. The Harris’ host one of the church’s small groups in their home. Harris and his wife, Leny, have two daughters, one a freshman in high school and another in 7th grade. They have moved 4 times, and “it is a sacrifice for the girls to make adjustments as they change schools.” He reminds his family that they are doing missionary work.
“At the end of the day,” Harris said, “I want people to know that God calls people into specific ministry.” He is available to anyone wanting to find out more about joining the chaplain corps at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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