That's How the Light Gets In

Defense Visual Information Distribution Service


April 20, 2024

By Javier Orona, Navy Chaplain Corps

In life's currents, some people flow with such purpose that their legacy acts as a North Star for future generations to follow.

Among those individuals is Retired Navy Chaplain Donald Harris, a man whose journey from Naval Chaplaincy to cultural entrepreneurship demonstrated resilience and the strength of a human’s spirit. Harris passed away March 16, 2024, in Williamsburg, VA.

Harris was committed to service and faith in the power of love. This was emphasized by over 60 years of marriage to his wife Ruth. He shaped countless lives and created bonds of understanding between nations.

Harris, a native of Belmont, Massachusetts, was sitting in his high school library when he came across a college brochure. Due to a problematic childhood, he decided to move to Virginia so he could find the peace he had always been searching for.

After graduating from the College of William & Mary in 1957, he entered graduate school at the University of Iowa, but quickly realized it wasn’t what he wanted. He was used to attending a much smaller school and decided he would go somewhere with warmer weather.

Harris enrolled in Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California, and stayed with his friend Charlie’s family. During this time, he befriended Charlie’s younger brother Christian. Harris didn’t allow himself to grow close to many people, but he ended up forming a brotherlike bond with him. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much time together as Christian developed bone cancer and died within one year.

During Harris’s time with Christian, he realized that although they didn’t have much in common, they formed a strong relationship. This was something he carried on with him and utilized to build strong bonds among servicemembers in the future.

In 1960, Harris entered the Coast Guard and attended Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia. Later, he was drawn to become a United States Navy Chaplain. So, in 1961, he enrolled at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

Each day, after school, he would drive to the Coast Guard Training Center to work with trainees who needed a chaplain to talk to.

Harris realized early on, after discussions with recruits attending his services, that they all seemed to relate to words used through music. He began using lyrics from songs in his sermons and saw a difference in the number of recruits attending.

In 1971, with the support of then Chief of Chaplains Rear Admiral Francis Garrett, Harris created the Chaplains Religious Enrichment Development Operation (CREDO). The program was created to address the rise of drug addiction and mental trauma among service members.

Using what he had learned from his short time with Christian, Harris focused on connecting people through mutual respect and humanity.

Peter Chase, a family friend who became involved with the program, says CREDO started off as a weekend full of music. He says they would speak about personal pain, social pain, and end on Sunday morning with celebratory music.

“They didn’t use uniforms or identify by rank,” said Chase. “They would go by first names in an effort to eliminate fear of repercussions.”

Chase says Harris was very dedicated to working with people who were trying to find themselves and helping them deal with life situations. He also says the weekends began giving people hope and helped them in some of their worst times.

“The people who wanted to get out ended up staying in,” said Chase. “They started to feel happier about where they were in life and with their career.”

The Navy CREDO program helps Navy personnel, and their families feel better spiritually. It helps them find hope, good relationships, grow spiritually, and strengthen morals. It does this by building trust and accepting people as they are. The program also gives them tools to become better people.

They have different programs such as retreats for couples to improve their marriage and retreats for families to become closer. There are also workshops before marriage and for building personal resilience.

The program has changed over time to fit the needs of Navy personnel, providing a supportive community where they can find comfort, help, and feel like they belong. With its whole-body approach, the CREDO program helps Navy members deal with hard times and increase their spiritual readiness.

Ben Chase, Peter’s brother, attended seminary with Harris and says that not everyone who attended the workshops was troubled.

CREDO program participants each have their own story and background and some join to find comfort and help during tough times. There are others, like Judy Neuter, one of the first female naval aviators, who found encouragement and a welcoming atmosphere in the program.

Her involvement showed that the program wasn't just for people facing difficulties but also attracted people looking to grow personally and connect with others in the military. Through sharing stories and supporting each other, attendees found a community for self-reflection, development, and friendship in the program.

“It was really a great social outlet at the time,” said Ben Chase. “It was a comfortable home for people within the Navy to grow and to feel valued.”

As he was working on growing the program, Harris and his family were told that he was being assigned to Rota, Spain. This proved to be the perfect place for his family following an impactful, but strenuous, tenure with the CREDO program.

Harris and his family were impressed by the culture in Spain and liked how friendly the people were. They admired how much Spanish families cared about each other and how important family was in their lives. Seeing this dedication had a big impact on them, and they came to value the traditions and values of their new Spanish community.

Jonathan Harris, Don Harris’s son, says there are challenges with moving every couple of years, but there is also an adventurous side.

“I got to see a lot of the world and meet different people,” said Jonathan Harris. “Being the son of a Navy Chaplain allowed me to meet folks from all walks of life, from petty officers to admirals, and see how my father was able to help them find a healthier, more fulfilling path.”

Jonathan says that as he got older, his father grew to be more like a close friend who always supported him. He also says his father loved nothing more than sitting with friends, old or new, and chatting for hours, really getting to know each person.

After leaving the Navy, Harris started an online store with his family. They all shared a passion for Spain, and his goal was to work alongside them. At the time, the Internet was becoming popular, and Spanish foods weren't readily available in the United States. So, Harris and his sons Jonathan and Tim decided to create one of the earliest online stores selling Spanish products.

Apart from his work accomplishments, Harris's memory lives on through his family, who carry on his dreams.

Harris's dedication to building bonds between nations did not go unnoticed.

In 2012, he was awarded the Official Cross of the Order of Civil Merit by the King of Spain, recognizing his impact on promoting Spanish culture in the United States. The award recognized him for his lifelong dedication to building connections and celebrating humanity.

Throughout his life, Harris dedicated himself to serving others, through his career in the Navy and through service to his community.

In the Navy, he found purpose in protecting his country and fostering relationships. Through his efforts, he achieved what he had always wanted: a life spent positively impacting those around him.

“When you love something, you don’t keep it to yourself,” said Chase. “You share it, and that’s what Don was about, he felt that he was healed by God and wanted others to experience it too.”

Jonathan says being a Navy chaplain was more than a career for his father and that it was his life’s mission. He says it provided him with the structure and platform to reach so many people and engage with them, to build a community of love and healing.

“Our father came from an abusive home and was a lonely kid, but he chose not to pass on that legacy,” said Jonathan. “Through his career as a Chaplain, especially through CREDO, he was able to share this message of forgiveness, healing, and connection with thousands of sailors and their families.”

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