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From the Winter 2013 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

Desert Discipleship

by Mark Carter
C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow


O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)1

You’re Going to Africa”

  I received the phone call in mid-August 2012, and my head was whirling. I was being mobilized to active duty and being sent to Djibouti, in northern Africa. Even though it was a mystery to me why I hadn’t been recalled to active duty during the eleven years following 9/11, and even though I was fully prepared and committed to carry out my duty as an officer in the Navy Reserve, I was still struggling to accept the fact that I might have to leave home for nearly a year. I was a relatively senior officer with more than twenty years of service, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down, and fewer guys like me were being called up. I was newly married to my wife, Colleen, and we were hoping to start a family. Furthermore, my friend and mentor Jim Phillips, city director for C.S. Lewis Institute (CSLI) Annapolis, had asked me to help him coordinate the Year 1 Fellows for 2012–2013. In short, I couldn’t help but wonder if the “threat” of active duty was some kind of distraction or spiritual test, especially in light of my upcoming new responsibilities with CSLI Annapolis. I just knew that God had ministry plans for me at home.  
  As I prepared for the increasing likelihood of having to leave Colleen and put my professional life on hold for a year, I realized that if my orders were not cancelled, I would have to do some serious praying and soul searching. If God didn’t cancel my orders, wouldn’t that imply that He had something else in mind, completely different from what Colleen and I and our friends in Annapolis originally anticipated?

Arriving in the Desert

  I arrived at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti on December 20, five days before Christmas. Prior to my arrival, I’d heard that Chaplain (Commander) Brian Weigelt, formerly the Senior Protestant Chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel and husband of CSLI Annapolis Fellow Rosslyn Weigelt, had also been deployed to Camp Lemonnier, arriving a couple of months prior. Although I hadn’t personally met Chaplain Brian, we had many common friends in Maryland. Jim Phillips connected us. Over coffee, Chaplain Brian graciously welcomed me to Camp Lemonnier, and we immediately hit it off.
  Djibouti is a predominantly Muslim desert nation in the horn of Africa, at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The country has no rivers; it is purported to have the hottest average recorded temperatures on the planet. I saw very few plants or other living things that I’d taken for granted in comparatively lush Maryland. Only the heartiest animals, such as camels and black African crows, thrive in the extremely harsh environment: dry, rocky, dusty, and dirty. The indigenous people of Djibouti are even tougher. In camp the natural environment is complemented by a strictly functional, military, so-called expeditionary infrastructure: nondescript, utilitarian shipping containers converted to living and working spaces. Seeing photos of the camp, Colleen noted the barrenness. Indeed, beauty seemed to be scarce in the harsh desert environment.  
  After a few weeks, I concluded that the overall spiritual landscape in camp paralleled the desert landscape. There seemed to be an ongoing struggle with discipline among the troops. There was great disparity between the large camp population and the modest weekly attendance at worship services. Despite the challenges, the chapel community was vibrant and enriching. Furthermore, Chaplain Brian and Father (Lieutenant Commander) Mark Reilly, the camp’s only Roman Catholic chaplain, worked well as a team, planning joint Catholic-Protestant events whenever possible.

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