Loitering around Training Air Wing Six, home of the U.S. Navy’s famed Blue Angels precision flying team, is sweet irony to Lt. Michael Peyton who was dropped in 1983 from the University of Florida’s Air Force ROTC program.
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Loitering around Training Air Wing Six, home of the U.S. Navy’s famed Blue Angels precision flying team, is sweet irony to Lt. Michael Peyton who was dropped in 1983 from the University of Florida’s Air Force ROTC program.
Forfeiting a scholarship and a promised pilot’s slot, Peyton said he threw away his scholarship and dropped out after he was put on academic and conduct probation.
These days, Peyton, a Southern Baptist chaplain endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, wears the signature flight suit and has access to the military’s top pilots – as the chaplain whose assignment includes the Blue Angels.
A Michigan native, Peyton moved to the Miami area with his parents when he was in high school. Enticed to a Campus Life meeting by the invitation to play Ultimate Frisbee, the young man soon made a profession of faith, but lacked focus and discipline when he left for college at UF.
After his short stint in college, Peyton joined the Air Force as an enlisted airman and took control of his life, eventually meeting a “crazy Southern Baptist” woman from Stuart.
Stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Peyton said he just couldn’t get Marianne Pennington, an Auburn grad, out of his mind and started to look for opportunities to see her. In 1986, on his way to his new duty station in Alaska, Peyton, knowing the busy young woman had moved to Alabama, pulled off the highway at a random exit in Birmingham to call her.
“I got off at the right exit,” Peyton recalled. “I was about a mile from her house.”
After they dated twice more when he was home on leave, Marianne called Peyton in Alaska and asked him to marry her. Marianne’s brother, now pastor of First Baptist Church in Navarre, married the two. Afterwards, Peyton was baptized and joined a Baptist church with his wife in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he finished out his second enlistment with the Air Force.
“We had a grand total of about four dates before we got married; we just knew it was a God thing,” Peyton recalled.
In Colorado Springs Peyton said he really started “growing in the Lord” and felt an “un-mistaken” call to preach.
Turned down twice for officer training school in the Air Force after earning an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, Peyton said he finally concluded he needed to go to seminary and packed up his family – which had expanded to include two sons – and headed to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
In seminary, Peyton said he was tempted to rejoin the military as a chaplain when Southern Baptist chaplain Gregory DeMarco, who is now the associate pastor at London Bridge Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Va., gave Peyton a new perspective on being a military chaplain.
“DeMarco said ‘you can still maintain your conservative theology’ … and that got me to thinking, ‘well, maybe all chaplains aren’t flaming liberals and blow whichever way the theological wind is blowing,’” Peyton said. “That was the turning point when things started to change and I started looking at chaplaincy in a little different light.”
Leaving an “itty bitty” church in Sturgeon, Mo., Peyton decided that he belonged at sea and so was commissioned as a Navy chaplain.
About the same time his ship steamed towards the Seychelles in 2000, terrorists exploded a bomb into the USS Cole – and Peyton’s ship was routed to Yemen where 17 sailors had been killed and 39 injured when suicide bombers attacked.
Assisting the chaplain in “deckplate ministry,” Peyton said he was there to “love on those folks who had been through so much.”
One young sailor, a Baptist from Kentucky, seemed relieved to be able to show Peyton around.
“’Chaplain, can I tell you something?’” Peyton recalled the humbled fireman asking him. “’God saved my life because I was standing in that same chow line as 17 of my friends were and I looked down and I saw I had dirty coveralls on and knew I shouldn’t be eating with dirty coveralls on and so God brought that to my attention.
“’I was down at my rack and I had a leg in my clean coveralls and I went up in the air when the bomb hit,’” the sailor told Peyton.
More recently in Pensacola, Peyton had an opportunity to practice that same ministry of presence after the body of Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis, the 32-year-old pilot who died when his No. 6 F/A-18 crashed during an air show in Beaufort, S.C., April 21, was returned to home.
Peyton, assigned to Pensacola since 2005, stood with the men and women of the Blue Angels as Davis’ flag-draped casket was carried off a transport plane and placed into a waiting hearse.
“One of the rules of thumb in the Navy’s chaplain corps is just the power of presence of the chaplain,” Peyton said. “I’m there representing Jesus Christ, or God in the wider sense. In my case, I’m there representing Jesus Christ and the power and the peace that brings – just through the chaplain’s presence. That can be a powerful presence.”
A member of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola, Peyton said he believes “the fields are truly white to God’s harvest” in the military.
In his office, Peyton offers counseling as part of his ministry and says he starts out hearing about symptoms of problems but quickly turns the conversation in a spiritual direction—”under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.”
“I will start going through the exploratory questions with them and I use the F.A.I.T.H. outline,” he said. “They may just give a works answer or they may not have any clue. But one of the best parts of my ministry is just being a spiritual midwife and seeing the young sailors, the young Marines, the young airmen humble themselves and come to faith in Jesus Christ behind the closed counseling door.”
Peyton said he has a message for Southern Baptists.
“Our chaplains have not forsaken ministry,” Peyton said. “We are out here on the cutting edge of evangelism; going where pastors can’t go, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with a lost and dying military community.”