Alumnus Steve Jensen ’73: Vivid memories of seminary and life as a Navy Chaplain
Amid the backdrop of seminary memories, including occasional pranks, the quality of education stands out
One of the most vivid memories from Chaplain Steven Jensen’s seminary days took place off campus.
“A sailor distraught for unknown reasons wanted to leave the Navy,” Jensen recalled. “He had snatched an airport security guard’s sidearm and was threatening to kill himself unless he was released from his service obligation.” Jensen, new to his Navy Yard assignment, recalled Chaplain’s Office personnel quibbled about how to respond. “Come on, I’m driving,” Jensen told them. Once at the airport a policeman asked them, “So who among you is a Lutheran?” “That would be him,” the assistant chaplain said, pointing to Jensen. And so the young Ensign became the crisis point person. Jensen confronted the young sailor, who was inside a trailer, introduced himself and listened to his terms, the sidearm pressed against the seminarian’s forehead the whole time. If he couldn’t get his release, he wanted to receive Holy Communion and absolution before he would kill himself. Jensen told the sailor he needed to go outside and get supplies for communion. He returned with other personnel bearing makeshift papers for the sailor to sign to be released from the service. When the young sailor switched the sidearm to his other hand to sign the papers, a police commissioner wrested the weapon from the sailor, inserting his finger between the hammer and the weapon to prevent the gun’s discharge. The situation was thus diffused. The event made headlines in Philadelphia.
That was the first of many memorable episodes of Jensen’s U.S. Navy career lasting some 27 years, including service in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s prior to Operation Desert Storm. His chaplaincy duties were aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, and while in the Gulf, he also was visiting chaplain aboard the battleship USS Missouri, known as the surrender ship for ceremonial events formally ending World War II with the Japanese. While on board the Missouri, Jensen especially befriended the crew members responsible for operating a deck gun turret capable of firing rounds as large as a small car some 23 miles. The Missouri is now berthed at Pearl Harbor near Jensen’s home in Kailua on Oahu. Having also served aboard the nuclear submarine Alexander Hamilton, in Italy, Korea, San Diego, and Hawaii, Jensen retired in 1998 with the rank of Navy Commander, but at the age of 67 is still vigorously active volunteering in Hawaii for veterans groups and providing counseling to those impacted by such challenges as sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is not without his own physical challenges, including back pain resulting from a hard landing (or crash) of a helicopter carrying him to an assignment in Korea in the 1970s.
During his high school years Jensen volunteered for Operation Goodwill in Albany. “I had buddies serving in Vietnam,” he recalled, “and my pastor, the Rev. Russ Gaenzle (later his intern supervisor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Allentown) had taught me much about the importance of the priesthood of all believers. And so I helped prepare tapes with messages from families to troops in Vietnam,” he said. “We also sent clothing and medical supplies units for their work with orphanages in Vietnam.” He recalled visits by troops returning from the war who wanted to meet the volunteers who had cared so much about them. More than once, as Jensen conversed with the returning troops, they told him they wished they had had someone like him with which to converse in Vietnam. “You should become a military chaplain,” he was advised. He took the advice to heart.
Jensen decided the quickest route to chaplaincy was to complete studies at the State University of New York and go on to seminary. “I was the eldest of five children, and we didn’t have money for me to go to seminary,” he recalled. The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) seemed like the best option for many reasons. He remembered visiting the school during Easter. “I had this image of some kind of monastic place, seminarians in Franciscan robes,” he said. But when he arrived at the campus he instead found seminarians dressed the way he was, friendly, willing to show him around even though they were studying for exams. “They even invited me to go with them to a Middle Eastern Restaurant featuring belly dancing. I decided that this could be the right seminary for me,” he said with a smile.
When Jensen arrived on campus he faced numerous challenges. His class initially had 50 students. “Some were well-suited to be scholars and teachers,” he recalled. “I wasn’t one of those. Others clearly were going to be good pastors. There really wasn’t a track for someone who wanted to be a military chaplain. Still others were clearly there because a military deferment was their priority.” By the end of his seminary days, the class had been whittled to about 25.
“Many of the professors, probably most, were opposed to the Vietnam War, felt I was on the wrong path and tried to bring me to my senses,” he said. On one occasion he was asked to present the military side for the conflict at a symposium on campus. “I declined and went home for the weekend,” he recalled. “I was less concerned about the politics of the war than I was about becoming prepared to be a good chaplain. I was always asking, what about this teaching or class am I going to be able to apply to my career as a chaplain?” He struggled at first.
But as his seminary years progressed, he became more and more impressed with life at LTSP. “The more I was there the more I came to appreciate the breadth, depth, and quality of the training,” Jensen recalled. “The place was made up of people, including professors with great qualifications, dedicated to the fields they had chosen. The overall experience we were receiving, including the classroom studies, internships, and Clinical Pastoral Education, and in my case the choir, were giving me the tools I would need to succeed as a chaplain.”
Robert Bornemann, Old Testament, was “my best mentor and educator,” Jensen remembered. “Hebrew was not easy for me. His teaching included an understanding of culture and nuances that made his interpretation of Hebrew exciting and interesting.” Some of Bornemann’s classes, including studies of the Bible, were held at “The Annex,” a restaurant and bar called Burba’s on nearby Mt. Pleasant Avenue. (Burba’s no longer exists.) Once during seminary, Jensen was called up by Selective Service. He was torn. “I thought, I am no better than anyone else, like my friends who had been serving. I should go.” But when Jensen took his dilemma to Bornemann, the professor calmly helped the seminarian to weigh the alternatives carefully. “He told me I had come to seminary with a call, a purpose. Might I be better able to serve the troops, the church, and God by staying on and completing my education?” Jensen decided to remain at LTSP.
Jensen came to admire the leadership of Dean and Ethics Professor William Lazareth. “He had us do papers and presentations to the class on the details of our call,” Jensen remembered. “It was a very hard class. He really pushed me, but I came to realize he was doing that to make it clear to me why I was preparing to do what I planned to do. He was doing all he could to teach me to be ready for the challenges I would face.”
Other faculty? “John Kaufmann was all business when I first knew him, but when I went to his home on an errand I saw another side of John. He was delighted to see me, had a twinkle in his eye and a big smile. From then on he was the first person I looked for when I revisited the campus.” He favorably recalled faculty members Clarence Lee (church history), who was personable, Lyman Lundeen, Foster McCurley, and Martin Heinecken. “The Heineckens regularly opened their home to us,” Jensen recalled.
He holds a soft spot for Homiletics Professor Harold Albert. “We watched ourselves on tape to better critique our sermons and delivery,” Jensen said. “He would have us go downtown, take the subway to unfamiliar places, and look the people we would run into in the eye. He wanted us to use human illustrations and experiences in our sermons.” The Alberts likewise invited seminarians to their home to discuss their journey through seminary and their sense of call.
“Ted Tappert (Confessions) always seemed to wonder why I had never learned the Book of Concord,” Jensen remembered. “But his teaching made it really clear to me why Lutherans are Lutherans. That teaching stayed with me through life and helped me interpret my chaplain’s role to officers and others who sometimes did not appreciate or understand the role of a chaplain.”
Jensen said New Testament Professor John Reumann had the nickname “Machine Gun Jack… He spoke so quickly and had so many pearls, I could never get everything written down in my notes.”
Most classes were in Hagan Hall and Jensen recalls the long, narrow rooms with creaky floors “that made it impossible to sneak in late. The acoustics were good.” Classes were held in the Library, in the rotunda and the stacks, and in the Refectory too.
Jensen worked serving meals in the Refectory, one of several jobs he held to pay his seminary bills. (He was a house parent at Martin Luther School for troubled youth and continues to support the initiative today.) “Dr. Kaufmann somehow had a way of finding special deals to make the food service more economical,” Jensen said. “I remember the Year of the Carrot. He had bought them in bulk. We had raw carrots, boiled carrots, mashed carrots, carrot soup and carrot cake.”
Jensen lived on the third floor of the Old Dorm in a corner room. He well recalls the multiple duties Kaufmann undertook — registrar, maintenance, groundskeeper. “Our rooms were Spartan,” Jensen said. “A bare bulb in the ceiling, furniture that looked like it was made shortly after the Revolution, scotch tape and staples in the lampshades, thin throw rugs sometimes taped to the floor, single pane windows that did not fit well so that the breeze came through and sometimes in the morning we would awaken and see snow on the floor and on the foot of the bed. You went downstairs to the basement to take a shower and you always went before 10:00 pm because that is when John would turn off the heat and hot water in the building for the night.” The telephone downstairs was the building’s only one. When (and if) it was answered a seminarian would bellow something like this, Jensen recalled: “STEVE, IT’S YOUR MOTHER — AGAIN!”
Bornemann led the choir of which Jensen was an active part. “That experience helped me appreciate music and the singing prepared us for leading the liturgy,” he recalled. The choir made trips to Lincoln Center and throughout New England. Bornemann could be intense and nervous as a performance leader. “We found it could be helpful to place inserts in his sheet music to break the tension,” Jensen said. Jensen served as a “super” (extra) for operatic performances at the Academy of Music. On one occasion he recalled meeting virtuoso Maria Callas.
One night after a downtown performance, Jensen and roommate Rolf Hedberg, a seminary Trustee in more recent years, returned to their room to find that every stick of furniture and accessory had been removed by student pranksters, including the light bulb in the ceiling. They slept on the floor and thought they heard stifled guffaws from down the hall. Jensen got even. He discovered one of the pranksters was petrified of bees. Kaufmann, ever the custodial wizard, regularly snuffed out with spray the lives of carpenter bees who tended to make their home in sections of the Old Dorm. “I collected a bunch of the carcasses,” Jensen said, “and placed them above the door in the room, under his pillow and in his underwear drawer while he was off playing basketball.” When the unwary victim returned, intermittent deafening screams could be heard from the student’s room. “We never had any trouble like that again,” Jensen said.
Once when the USS Ranger was berthed in San Diego, Jensen learned from his junior Protestant Chaplain, a recent CPE participant, that his former supervisor had requested that a group of CPE supervisors from across the country meeting in San Diego wanted to visit the ship. Jensen remembered “we had a lot going on that day, but I agreed to address the group as command chaplain.” The group was ushered to a large space near the bow of the carrier, where services were often held, and Jensen stepped onto the deck to the cry of “attention on deck.” As he stepped to the podium, he heard: “O my God, that’s just Steve Jensen!” “Who IS this person?” Jensen wondered. It was none other than LTSP’s CPE supervisor and professor, Jack White. “We had a nice conversation afterward, and Jack wrote a story in PS about the experience,” Jensen remembered.
A frequent contributor to the seminary over the years, Jensen was asked why he gives. “Because no one did it for me,” he said simply. “Some students received financial support from their synods or congregations, or they came from families with money. I had to work my way through to pay my bills. I used to set aside $1 a week to take the train downtown to visit an historic site and have a soft pretzel. The rest of the money I earned I used to pay my bills. So I have wanted to do what I can to keep others like me from that kind of struggle.”
Jensen urges anyone contemplating seminary, in addition to prayerful reflection and listening to the advice of others who know them, to do as he did and visit the campus and talk to students as well as faculty. “If you want to be challenged and well prepared, in my opinion, Philadelphia Seminary stands out.”
He also urges members of congregations connected to returning veterans to engage in generous ministry to the vets and their families who are often afflicted by unspeakable, invisible wounds of war, such as PTSD, as well as more visible ones. “Don’t ask veterans to recount their experiences. Just be good listeners,” he said. “In my experience churches have always responded to such needs, and they can do so much more for these veterans than the government can ever do.”
Watch an extended interview with Pr. Jensen, from his back yard in Hawaii: