ABOARD THE USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (AP) -- Far below the thundering flight deck, the largest floating chapel in the United States military offers solace and spiritual guidance for 5,100 sailors and crew members.
In an atmosphere that's as much like home as the Navy can make it -- right down to fake stone walls and faux-stained glass windows -- people of many religions go to worship as the ship heads to war.
''Our Muslims pray five times a day. They just come down individually and pray,'' said Lt. Cmdr. David Mudd, a Roman Catholic chaplain. ''At the same time, there may be someone else in here reading the Bible or a Catholic praying the rosary.
''Somehow it all works. It is supposed to be a place for the free expression of all religious faiths.''
Each weekend, there are 10 different types of services on board, including Jewish, Seventh-day Adventist, Lutheran and Catholic. Most services are in the chapel, although the Gospel service meets on the mess deck because it attracts up to 300 people. Chapel music ranges from chants to tapes to a nine-piece band that plays in the Gospel service.
In addition to Mudd, the chaplains include a Lutheran and two other Protestants. Other services are run by lay leaders.
The chapel opens at 5 a.m. for quiet meditation and often is in use until after midnight. Petty Officer 1st Class Cory Bell, a hospital corpsman from San Diego, said it offers a quiet respite for busy sailors.
''It is a way to get away from it all,'' he said. ''It's spiritual refreshment.''
The Chaplains Corps traces its history to 1775 when Navy regulations stated ''the commanders of the ships of the thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine services be performed twice a day on board and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent.''
Rarely have chaplains had such a big space in which to work. On the John F. Kennedy, nicknamed Big John, the chapel space was doubled when the ship was in the yards in 1997, Mudd said.
''This is the largest chapel afloat,'' said Cmdr. Jon Frederickson, a Lutheran and the command chaplain.
On a typical aircraft carrier, the chapel sits right under the flight deck and is noisy and small, usually seating about 45 people. The JFK chapel is two decks below the hangar bay and seats more than 100 people, Frederickson said. No one on board is exactly sure how the chapel got its enviable spot, though many are glad it did.
The walls of the chapel, although made of steel, are painted to look like sandstone.
''It's kind of a monastery look,'' said Mudd.
In the walls are windows (leaded to resemble stained glass) representing Islam, Judaism and Christianity and another honoring Eastern religions.
Windows behind the altar represent the ship's two communities, the air wing and the surface forces, and another in the back of the chapel window depicts the ship's seal.
In a small room behind the chapel, there are supplies to conduct services for each of the major religions. Among the items are Lutheran song books, sacramental wines, a Torah and copies of the Quran and Bible.
The chaplains are also planning to conduct four burials at sea, including one for a petty officer who served on the ship in the 1970s. Cremated remains are stored in boxes behind the chapel.
Mudd said the burials are usually done at sunrise with the commanding officer leading the service, which includes a 21-gun salute. The family of the deceased gets a videotape of the service, a letter from the commanding officer and a navigation chart showing where the remains were buried.
Most of the time, however, religious devotion on board isn't so somber. The Kennedy chapel, which is one of quieter spots on the aircraft carrier because it is so far below deck, is also one of the coolest because it has air conditioning.
''It's a little bit of heaven,'' Mudd said.
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USS John F. Kennedy: http://www.navy.mil/homepages/cv67/home.html
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