The Dorchester Chaplains

Psalm 46

Joel 2:28-32

Romans 8:15b-19, 38-39

John 15:9-14

John 15:9-14 NRSV: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

The Dorchester Chaplains–Methodist minister George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling and Roman Catholic priest John Washington were all aboard the troop ship Dorchester when it was attacked by a German 12:55 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943. The Dorchester ended up sinking in 20 minutes and only there was only time to lower two of its 14 boats into the 34 degree water. The four chaplains quietly distributed life jackets (including their own) to the panicked, fearful soldiers, and preached courage to the men in order to convince them to jump in the icy water and have a chance to be saved by other ships in the convoy. Only 230 survived the sinking–many were killed in the initial explosion of the torpedo blast–but far fewer would have been saved had it not been for the chaplains. However, the four chaplains were not to be on the list of survivors. They went down with the ship, refusing to leave those men already dying. Survivors recall seeing the four of them linked arm in arm, offering prayers.

The story of the Dorchester Chaplains is one that takes us to a place that probably several of us have postulated in that “What If?” way–what I call the “Titanic spiritual exercise.” I remember as a child seeing the old black and white British movie, “A Night to Remember” on late night TV, and thinking, “who would I be on a sinking ship?” I suspect many of us has watched various “sinking ship” movies, or heard the story of the Dorchester Chaplains told in church or at a Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day event, and wondered who we’d be. Of course, we all probably postulate that we would be valiant and heroic in some way, but truth is, we never really know unless fate gob-smacks us in a place where that aspect of our personalities is put to the test. Some of us may have already displayed glimmers of our potential in already lived-out life events. Just as possible are the simultaneous realizations of our own acts of cowardice or self-preservation at the expense of another. One image gives us peace; the other haunts us. Perhaps the only ultimate peace is to trust that God makes all things right in the end, somehow…and we can’t possibly know what “the end” is. I suspect that a tension among those chaplains themselves is that they had to know that, encouraging scared soldiers to jump ship was also adding to the reality that some of those soldiers would freeze to death before they were plucked from the water. Yet they simultaneously understood all was in God’s hands.

The other important message in the story of these martyrs is it brings a harsh reality to our delusions of “Christian behavior.” Rabbi Goode’s actions were identical to that of the three Christian chaplains. I imagine that had one of the people in this story been Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or secular humanist, they would have done the same thing. Although we as Christians attribute that kind of selfless love to the Cross, this story is proof that belief in Jesus is not a prerequisite for behaving nobly and selflessly. We have no right to co-opt selfless love; we only have a model in Jesus we can readily point to and say, “This is why I do it.” In fact, The ability to display selfless love at great personal risk may well be the thing that links us to our brothers and sisters outside our Christian faith traditions.

How does the story of the Dorchester Chaplains call you to a greater faith?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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