Let’s start with a prayer: Lord Jesus, help us to find true freedom and happiness in laying down our lives for others. Amen.
When the news broke last month that the captain of an American cargo ship had been captured by pirates, it is likely that many people didn’t realize how dangerous and terrifying that really was.
Arrr… Danger ahoy!
From Peter Pan to the Pirates of the Caribbean, everyone loves a good pirate story. But real pirates aren’t silly swashbucklers like the romanticized treasure hunters we know from movies and books.
On Wednesday, April 8, 2009, four ordinary-looking Somali fisherman, all less than 20 years old, used grappling hooks and rope ladders to board the merchant vessel ship Maersk Alabama. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, they were seeking to take control of the ship and its crew at gunpoint.
The ship was off the coast of Somalia, carrying medical supplies and food destined for refugee camps. Some of these things belonged to Catholic Relief Services.
Violence breeds violence
Somalia is probably best remembered from the movie Black Hawk Down. Recently, however, this north-east African country has been in the news for many of these types of pirate attacks.
Years of civil war and unrest have left the country very poor, and so many people there turn to violent means of providing for themselves and their families.
Somalia has hundreds of miles of coastline along very busy shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. Ships here are an easy target for these pirates. Sometimes the pirates are interested in stealing the cargo on the ships. However, most of the time they are looking to get ransom money.
Walking the plank
When they learned that there were pirates on board, the crew went below deck and locked themselves in safe rooms. They had managed to capture one pirate. Only the captain and one other crew member stayed on deck to negotiate with the pirates. What happened next is what makes this particular story very different from the other cases of piracy in the news lately.
The captain of this ship, Captain Richard Phillips, was so concerned about the safety of his crew that he did something unthinkable… He asked the pirates to take him as their prisoner, and in return let his crew take the ship and go free. Once the ship and crew were at a safe distance, they would exchange Captain Phillips for the captured pirate.
Tide turns against him
The three armed pirates liked the idea. Capt. Phillips led them to one of the ships small lifeboats, climbed in it, and had it lowered into the water. Captain Phillips was in close quarters with the men who could easily have killed him at any moment. He showed them how to operate the boat. And then the plan went horribly wrong. The crew of the Alabama, as they had agreed, brought out the injured pirate for the trade. But now that the pirates had their friend, they didn’t release their prisoner. They kept Capt. Phillips as a hostage, and were holding him for ransom.
For five days these bandits held him under constant guard. There was water and food, but there were no bathrooms or showers. It was unbearably hot in the enclosed lifeboat; so much so that Capt. Phillips said he dreaded the sun coming up in the morning. The captain and his captors sat, waiting. The pirates weren’t sleeping and were becoming agitated.
At one point, Capt. Phillips even tried to escape. He pushed one of the pirates guarding him overboard, and dove in the water and swam away. He swam towards a US Navy ship, the USS Bainbridge, that was following them. But it was nearly a half mile away. Before long, he was caught again; only now the pirates were very angry with him.
Is Davey Jones comin’?
By this point, the outcome didn’t look too bright for Captain Phillips. “It was just settling everything. Getting ready to die and just settling everything. You know, saying my last thoughts. Andrea, the kids.” He no longer believed he would leave that boat alive. He wondered why the pirates were dragging things out when he was certain they would kill him in the end anyway.
He had known when he went with them that there was a chance he would die. But he had been willing to take that chance freely, to spare his crew. Now, faced with what seemed certain death, he was at peace with his decision.
Watching and waiting
Thousands of miles away, in a tiny town in Vermont, the Phillips family was experiencing the turmoil of wondering what was happening to their husband and father. “We did not know what Richard was enduring while being held hostage on the lifeboat, and that was really the hardest part… the wondering,” said Mrs. Andrea Phillips.
Mariah, the captain’s 19 year old daughter, expressed the shock of learning that this had actually happened to her family: “This is something that happens to other people. Obviously, I am other people.”
They received visits from Fr. Danielson, their parish priest, who prayed with them and told them not to lose hope. Captain Phillips was unaware that there were other forces at work in his story. There was prayer power gathering and there was planning by the US Navy.
Living the mystery
These events came about at a very appropriate time of year. The day Capt. Phillips was captured was the Wednesday of Holy Week. The time he made his escape attempt was probably around the time we remember Jesus’ agony in the garden.
On Easter Sunday morning, Fr. Danielson told the Phillips’ friends and neighbors that they should pray more intensely for Capt. Phillips. Father said he believed Capt. Phillips’ story would serve as an example; just like Christ Jesus’ suffering led to His Resurrection, once again God and His goodness would triumph over evil in the end.
A Storm breaks loose
Later in the evening on Easter Sunday, things became extremely tense on the little life boat. One of the pirates had gone aboard the USS Bainbridge for medical treatment, and to try and arrange the ransom payment. When the other three pirates hadn’t heard from him in a while, they got restless. They climbed out of the hatch of the life boat in plain view, and began firing warning shots in the air. The Bainbridge and the lifeboat were both moving, and the waves were bouncing them up and down in the darkness.
Capt. Phillips had no idea what was going on. As he heard the shots, he dove to the deck and got as low as he could. He thought perhaps the pirates were fighting against each other. Or perhaps they were getting ready to kill him.
Salvation is from the SEAL’s
US Navy SEAL snipers took advantage of the opportunity, firing one perfect shot at each pirate. After what felt like a long time, but was only a few seconds later, Capt. Phillips heard the beautiful sound of a US Navy SEAL’s voice, asking him if he was alright. He was saved.
A short time later, back at home, Mrs. Phillips, their daughter Mariah, their son Daniel, and their whole family were relieved and elated to hear Captain Phillips himself, on the phone, telling them he was safe.
Mariah said, “You never know how strong your family can be when something like this happens.”
In a statement about how they survived the emotional torture of the five day ordeal, Mrs. Phillips said, “My family and closest friends held onto our faith knowing that Richard would come home.”
“I need a hero…”
What makes Captain Phillips a hero? Is it in conquering or strength? No. Like Jesus, his willingness to surrender himself as a prisoner, to suffer, and accept even death is where we find his true heroism.
Captain Richard Phillips is an example of love and respect for life. The lives of his shipmates meant so much to him, that he would offer up his own to save them. This is the ultimate sign of love and sacrifice. Whether he realized it at the time or not, Capt. Phillips was imitating Jesus Christ, at the very time when Jesus made the sacrifice that saves us all. He willingly offered himself to save others. He spent a few days in a little “tomb-like” capsule, and on Easter Sunday he got to taste a little bit of Jesus’ Easter victory.
Just doing his job
Captain Phillips does not consider himself a hero. For him, what he did was just part of his job. He had accepted the job as a captain, and that meant putting the safety of his crew above his own. Yet there is something we admire about this attitude. When we see his example, we know we have met a real man, a man who puts others first.
True manhood is about service and sacrifice. These are qualities we also admire in so many women, especially our own moms (Happy Mother’s Day to all our moms!), but there is something we typically think of as particularly masculine about the willingness to face danger and take a huge risk for others. Men were designed by God to be protectors. They are called to protect their family and protect their communities. They are designed by God to overcome the fear of danger, because sometimes real life is dangerous. Sometimes risk is necessary for really important things.
Jesus Christ was a real man. He overcame his fear of danger. He put our safety above his own. Christ, by his life and death, helps men discover what it means to be a man. Let’s ask Christ to raise up more real men today.
For those of us who are guys, we can make a resolution to learn to love others so much that we are willing to sacrifice for them.
For girls, let’s start thanking some of the real men in our lives for what they do for us, starting with our own dads, or those other men who help keep us safe. And let’s show the guys that we also know how to sacrifice with courage, putting our hearts and lives at the service of goodness and love. The world will be a better, safer place.
Christ wants us to help him do this. It’s part of the call to love that he makes to each of us.