Service and Sacrifice
By Cecil Richardson
Nov. 11, 2012
Have you heard the one about the rabbi, the priest and the two Protestant chaplains who went for a cruise late one night? It’s one of the most powerful and inspiring true stories in American history.
The USAT Dorchester carried more than 900 souls on board. It was the height of World War II, and because German submarines had been sighted in the area, the soldiers were told to wear their life vests at all times. The vests, however, were uncomfortable, and most of the men took them off to sleep.
Shortly after midnight on Feb. 3, 1943, a German torpedo shattered the Dorchester’s hull. The captain gave the order to abandon ship, and the men came rushing out of the ship’s hold — most without their life vests.
There were four chaplains on the Dorchester that night: a rabbi, a priest and two Protestants. The chaplains took charge, chopping open the ship’s storage lockers and distributing all the life vests they could find. Soon, however, there were no more vests to be distributed. Then the most remarkable thing imaginable happened: One by one, the four chaplains took off their own vests and handed them to panicked soldiers.
As the survivors bobbed up and down in the frigid waters that moonlit night, they watched the four chaplains on the sinking ship, praying for the wounded and shouting words of encouragement to those adrift. They were last seen with their arms linked together, praying and singing hymns until the Dorchester sank. They gave their lives for their men and their ministries.
Those chaplains define what military chaplain ministry should be, what we want it to be, and, by God’s grace, what it will always be.
I served as a chaplain for 35 years. I’ve walked on our nation’s battlefields. I’ve stood in bombed-out buildings, my uniform saturated with blood. I’ve carried human remains in my hat, and held the hands of brave, young Americans who were breathing their last and going to be with God. I’ve sat beside the hospital beds of some of the greatest heroes our nation has ever known. Far too many times, I have stood at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and rendered a final salute to those who have given their all in service to our country.
Whenever I pause to think about my life and ministry as a chaplain, something happens deep within me and I realize once again what a privilege it is to be an American, what an honor it is to wear a uniform, and what a blessing it is to have spent the majority of my life in a ministry I love.
The very first military chaplain was a priest named Melchizedek, who ministered to the patriarch Abraham and his army when they returned from a prisoner of war rescue mission (see Genesis 14:8-24). It’s safe to assume Abraham’s men were suffering the same traumatic and spiritual issues military chaplains see every day. War does horrible things to human beings. No one ever fully recovers from the nightmares that come from having taken a life, even if you’re just “doing your job” as a soldier.
Although references to military ministry can be found throughout ancient literature, the modern chaplaincy is commonly traced to Saint Martin of Tours, a fourth-century French soldier. It is said that Martin encountered a shivering beggar on a winter day. Overcome by compassion, he cut his cape in two with his sword and gave one piece to the beggar.
That night, Martin dreamed that the beggar was Christ. He devoted his life to Christian ministry, and his half of the cape became a sacred relic taken into battle by French kings. The “keeper of the cape” was the chapelain, which forms the basis of the title “chaplain.” The phrase “man of the cloth” also is derived from this story.
George Washington was primarily responsible for the presence of chaplains in America’s military. Washington had witnessed the positive impact of chaplain ministry during the French and Indian Wars, and he wanted chaplains for the Continental Army. Washington asked that they be paid ($20 per month, plus food for their horses) and suggested they be noncombatants.
As the Air Force’s chief of chaplains, I traveled to every state and more than 100 countries. I’ve been to the Arabian Gulf region at least 60 times. Wherever I went, I marveled at the young men and women in our military. They are just as spiritually hungry as any generation I’ve seen. They want to hear a word from the Lord. They want to hear something positive amid all the world’s negatives. They yearn to hear that God loves them, that God has a plan for their lives, and that there is hope for the future.
I am always impressed and humbled when I witness one of them raise their right hand and speak the words, “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies. … ” Those words are a pledge of service and self-sacrifice, qualities often bred within a young person’s faith development and nurtured by his or her family and community. The primary role of military chaplaincy is to ensure that every young man or woman willing to take such an oath is afforded the key right guaranteed by the Constitution they will defend … freedom of religion.
Assemblies of God Air Force chaplains and chaplain assistants are deployed to locations throughout the world. At this moment, they and other Air Force chaplains are transforming ordinary places in the harshest environments into sacred places of worship and hope. We offer prayers in guard towers and briefing rooms. Worship services are held in aircraft, tents and aircraft hangars. Counseling takes place in the privacy of a Humvee or the back of a C-17.
In addition to the chaplains in combat units, there are teams supporting humanitarian relief operations, teams leading missions to orphanages and schools, and hospital ministry teams.
Ministry is rich and far from trivial in a combat zone. The reality of being in a life-and-death situation causes people to think about what’s important.
“The months are short,” one young man said to me in Afghanistan, “but the days are long and we have lots of time to think.” Much of the trivial is set aside as they think of family, faith and freedom.
I received a letter from one of my Air Force chaplains deployed to the Middle East. He wrote:
There is a silent battle being waged by our troops here that often goes unnoticed. I have gained profound respect for the young men and women who serve, for though they may be tender in years, their shoulders are bent by the trials they face both on the battlefield and on the homefront. There are stories of wives meeting soldiers at the airport with divorce papers; bank accounts emptied after troops send their checks home to be deposited; stories of unfaithfulness, of children unprovided for, of parents dying, of tragedy, disappointments and betrayal. I’ve sat with our troops as they cry and pray and hope. In a quiet place in my heart I hold each of them near, and I pray for their healing, for restoration and for God’s peace that passes understanding.
Today I entered a tent and saw a young, female Marine sitting in a chair alongside the walkway. I asked her how she was doing. She assured me she was fine, but for some reason I asked her again. Then I told her there was a chaplain’s office nearby, and she could sit there if she wanted. She took me up on the offer, and on our way to the office she told me her brother had just been killed on a motorcycle.
What do you say in a moment like that? We sat down together and I asked, “Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?”
“Yes” she said, “but not in English.” So she prayed it in Spanish while I prayed it in English.
Only in military chaplaincy would you find a 50-something African-American Baptist pastor praying the Lord’s Prayer with a 20-year-old female Hispanic soldier in two different languages in the middle of a Muslim country. It was a God thing, and it was beautiful.
Several years ago, while I was serving as the command chaplain for United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), I was in Saudi Arabia visiting remote outposts. On the way back to the main base, about 2 or 3 a.m., someone shouted to me over the roar of our tracked vehicle: “Hey, Chaplain, today is Easter!”
I had no idea. There is no Sunday when you’re deployed, no Sabbath. For me, every day was Sunday because I did a worship service wherever I went.
I asked the sergeant to radio the command post to tell them a chaplain was inbound and would do an Easter sunrise service upon arrival. I was hoping for at least 10 or 12 to attend, but when I got to the designated site, there were already too many to count. One of the precious memories of my life and ministry is climbing on top of a Humvee that morning, proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ and leading hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the words of that great hymn, “I serve a risen Savior; He’s in the world today. … ” It was a God thing. And it was beautiful!
Warrior care is the number one priority for the chaplain corps: taking care of marriages, strengthening families, and helping singles build a foundation of faith to stand upon when they’re called to deploy to dangerous places.
Warrior care means being there when people reach a critical turning point in their lives and don’t know which way to go. It means being there when the new recruits step off the bus at basic training and head to the barbershop. Being there when the young pilots take their aircraft up by themselves for the first time. And being there when the new troops arrive in the war zone, scared and wondering what their future holds. It means being there on the flight line, in the guard shacks, in the maintenance areas, and in the hospitals.
And it means being there at the chapel altar when men and women come forward to kneel and commit their lives to Jesus Christ.
One of my chaplains emailed me about a Sunday evening worship service he had conducted in Afghanistan. While he was preaching, a mortar round landed on base and the lights went out. Everyone instinctively hit the dirt in their flack vests and helmets.
As they lay there in the darkness with their faces buried in the dirt floor, someone shouted, “Preach on, Chaplain!” So the chaplain rolled over onto his back and started preaching into the darkness.
“Chaplain Richardson,” he wrote, “It was the best sermon I ever preached!”
I laughed and I wept as I read his note. His wife and children missed him terribly, and I wished I could bring him home right then, but he was in the center of God’s will doing exactly what God called him to do.
For chaplains, warrior care also means being there when things go wrong, when tears flow, and when hearts and bodies and families are shattered. It means being there when the notification team knocks on the door in the middle of the night, weeping with those who weep and comforting those who mourn.
One of my chaplain assistants told me of an incident in which an airman couldn’t return home for a funeral. The deployed chaplain and chaplain assistant held a prayer service just for him in the middle of the night to coincide precisely with the time of the funeral back home. That’s what it means to be a chaplain.
Whenever I visit America’s wounded warriors, they tell me about their unit chaplains. Their moms and dads, almost always by their bedsides, break into tears when they hear how a chaplain was there within minutes after the explosion, how the chaplain traveled with their son or daughter in the makeshift ambulance and knelt by his or her bedside throughout the night.
In the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim became lost and discouraged as he sought the Celestial City. He met a man named Evangelist and begged for help. Evangelist pointed his finger and said to Pilgrim, “Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?” Poor Pilgrim saw nothing. Then Evangelist said, “Do you see yonder shining Light?” Pilgrim peered into the darkness and said, “I think I do; I think I see something.”
“Then keep that light in your eye,” said Evangelist. “Keep walking to the light, and you shall see the gate.”
The Chaplain Corps is marching toward the light and glory of God, and pointing others to that light as well. We love our Lord, we love our country, and we absolutely love our ministry!
Maj. Gen. CECIL RICHARDSON retired as chief of chaplains for the U.S. Air Force on June 1.
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