Even atheists go to church in boot camp.
Each day, from 4:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m, drill instructors ceaselessly scream and yell and curse at Navy initiates. Each day, that is, except for Sunday morning. Drill instructors aren’t allowed to yell in church.
So Joshua Zaagsma, a staunch atheist, went to church faithfully every Sunday for the eight weeks he spent in the Navy’s boot camp on the shores of Lake Michigan. The sermons and the liturgy meant very little to him. But it was peaceful, and that was enough. Quiet was a rare commodity for Zaagsma.
Months earlier, the seventeen-year-old had found himself weeping in an empty parking lot in Washington as heavy snow fell, blanketing his car. Months of working three jobs, two and a half days without sleep, and clinical depression had finally caught up with him. He felt empty and alone.
When the tears subsided, he got out of the car and walked around the lot, which happened to be that of a US Navy Recruiting Center. The next morning, after watching Captain America: The First Avenger on a whim, he drove back and enlisted.
Days in boot camp were mostly the same: up at 4:00 a.m., breakfast, class, lunch, more class, cleaning the barracks, more studying, and physical training before lights out at around 10:30 p.m.—not to mention a seemingly endless stream of expletives and exclamations from the drill instructors. Rinse and repeat.
Sunday morning was a time to breathe.
Josh had heard that the Bible was a book of stories, and with the only other reading materials on base being training manuals, he decided to pick one up. He began with the gospel of John and immediately fell in love with the Bible. While the rest of the barracks was asleep, Josh read.
He was immediately struck by the incredible lives that the New Testament disciples and apostles lived. Several times, he wrote in his journal that he longed to live like those first Christians, but having no examples around him, he didn’t know how.
After boot camp, he was transferred to the Naval Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut.
Immediately, he began to search for a group of disciples like the ones he had read about. However, after months of fruitlessly searching for a congregation to join, he became disillusioned. His fellow seamen would sit in church on Sundays, but live in sin and self-indulgence the rest of the week. He felt hopeless. He began to doubt whether New Testament Christianity still existed.
One day, as he walked around the naval base, Josh prayed that God would give him a group of friends like he had back home in Washington. The kind of friends who could stay up late on a Saturday night and play Settlers of Catan and Sequence. The kind of friends who don’t need girls or beer to have fun. But Josh prayed that they would be even more than his friends back home: he prayed that they would be the kind of friends who would live out the Bible and could teach him more.
At that very moment, Danny MacDougall, the associate minister at the Groton New London Church of Christ, was trying to convince a friend that strangers could become Christians. Before Joshua had finished his prayer, Danny stopped him on the escalator and invited him to a Bible discussion on base.
Josh immediately replied that he would come. So enthusiastic was his response that Danny thought he was lying.
Joshua was the only one at the Bible discussion that night, and so they began a personal Bible study with him. Afterward, they invited him to a singles’ devotional the next day. He was eager to go.
After a short devotional thought, the singles had a game night where they played Settlers of Catan and Sequence.
The connection was obvious. Josh studied the Bible for twelve days and was baptized, just as he had read about in the Scriptures.
Josh Zaagsma has since been discharged from the Navy with full honors and is pursuing a degree in biology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts as he serves in the Boston Church of Christ campus ministry.