On a recent balmy Wednesday evening, I drove to the coast guard base in Cape May and joined a group of recruits meeting at the base chapel.
Each week, the base chaplains – one Protestant, one Catholic – meet with recruit volunteers to talk about how they can best represent their faith within their company.
Protestant Chaplain Lt. Commander Yolanda Gillam and Catholic Chaplain Lt. Joseph Coffey led the recruits together as they talked about what the graduation prayer would be that Friday. They also invited members of the graduating company to stand up and give a few words of wisdom to those still in training.
The two chaplains then separated and met with recruits of their respective faiths.
I sat in with Coffey’s group for the first half of the evening and joined Gillam’s group for the second half.
Both had some similarities.
For example, both discussed who would perform which tasks at their faith’s service that Sunday. They also reminded the recruits that part of representing their faith within their company was their behavior. They were asked not to use bad language and to behave themselves during off-base liberty.
Coffey talked about some recruits getting in trouble and getting reverted, or held back, in their training and how that could be avoided through the company coming together to help each other as a team.
Gillam reminded the recruits of some basic rules of boot camp, and also reviewed the different ranks and how to properly address them.
She also invited the recruits to share personal stories about why they had joined the Coast Guard.
One recruit of Protestant faith, Robert Allen Diaz, who was in week two of boot camp, shared openly with the group.
“I’m trying to be the man I’ve always wanted to be.” he said.
Gillam closed the evening with a Bible study from Numbers, verse 1-10 and then took prayer requests.
Gillam grew up in Detroit, Mich. She got her B.A. in Science from Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and then earned her Masters of Divinity from Emory University. After graduating with her Master’s, she worked as a youth minister for two years and then came on active duty, with her first assignment providing religious services and counseling for service members on six different ships.
Her second duty station was in San Diego, Calif., where she was responsible for the chapel in the family housing area.
After leaving San Diego, she spent three years at a marine base in Quantico, Virginia, where she provided ministry for military police officers, the fire department and the brig, or jail. After leaving Virginia, Gillam came to Cape May.
Gillam feels that serving with the coast guard has given her new insight and respect for what coast guard men and women do on a daily basis.
“This has been a great tour. I respect them highly.” said Gillam.
Gillam became a navy chaplain because that would allow her to serve three military branches, including the navy, marines and coast guard. She also wanted the opportunity to benefit young adults and diverse groups of people.
Coffey is originally from Philadelphia and was the fifth of nine children. After graduating St. Charles seminary school, he went to St. Catherine of Sienna parish for five years and then his Bishop at that time, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, allowed him to go into the military.
Coffey’s first military assignment was with the marines in Okinawa, Japan, then in Norfolk, Va., on the air craft carrier USS George Washington. Coffey then had a six-month appointment to the Iraqi gulf, after which he requested to come to Cape May because he wanted to serve the recruits and help them get through boot camp.
This summer he will be assisting with weekend mass at three local parishes, including Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cape May, St. John of God in North Cape May and St. Raymonds in the Villas.
After meeting with recruit volunteers each Wednesday, the chaplains rotate meeting with recruit companies in the barracks. They share with them coast guard news and sports scores. They also give motional talks and take prayer requests.
“We aren’t trying to convert, ” said Gillam, “We just provide inspiration and let people know they can always call on God for help to get themselves through.”
Recruits of other faiths are allowed to go off-base to attend services as needed.
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