There used to be humorous stories about ministers of different faiths. They started something like this, “A priest, a preacher, and a Rabbi …” and then continued to recount how each one faced some sort of trial or situation.
In 1986, I received my commission as a chaplain candidate while I was in my last year at Grace Theological Seminary. In June 1987, I went to my initial training to become a chaplain in the Army Reserve at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, fondly known by the acronym “USACHCS,” pronounced “U-sacks” at Fort Monmouth, N.J. There I learned another story that has shaped my perception of ministry and service. It is significant because it is one of the stories told to every Army chaplain during his or her initial training. The story provides a ministry model and sets an ideal in the soul that serves as an example for every chaplain to aspire to as they do ministry.
The story is about a priest, two Protestant ministers, and a rabbi who met each other just over 75 years ago as they prepared to travel to England with their units as the United States was just entering World War II and combat in the European Theater of Operations. John Washington was a Catholic priest from New Jersey, Alexander Goode was a rabbi from Brooklyn, N.Y., Clark Poling was a Reformed minister from Columbus, Ohio, and George Fox was Methodist pastor from Lewiston, Pa. George Fox was the oldest of the four chaplains, was a decorated World War I veteran (a medical assistant) who had received the Silver Star, Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre for courage under fire. Pastor Fox also attended Moody Bible Institute and is connected to Winona Lake, Ind., where he married his sweetheart.
The four chaplains were assigned to the troop transport, U.S.A.T. Dorchester in January 1943. During the voyage across the North Atlantic and shortly after midnight on February 3, 1943, the Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank within 20 minutes. Of the 902 on board the ship, 672 died, including the four chaplains. But rather than just be victims of the attack, they became heroes to the few who survived.
Among the 230 survivors were four men who were wearing the life vests of Washington, Goode, Poling, and Fox because each chaplain voluntarily gave up his life vest to a scared young soldier. Others received their gloves. In those 20 minutes, the four chaplains assisted as they prayed with wounded and preached courage. Eyewitnesses reported that the four chaplains had found each other in the chaos of the sinking ship and had linked arms as the ship went beneath the icy waters. So significant was their story that in 1948, the U.S. Postal Service designed a stamp in their honor and memory.
While I cannot speak to their eternal destiny, their story does tell us about selfless service, about love, about sacrifice in a way that reflects the Gospel and what Jesus did for us. Their story also shaped me as to how I should aspire to do ministry as an Army Chaplain and I believe it should shape how any follower of Christ should live and serve.
In my 30 years of service, I didn’t always agree theologically with all the chaplains with whom I served, but they were all worthy of my love and my respect as those made in the image of God. During my time in service, I was never put in a situation in combat when I would have had decide to give up my Individual Body Armor. But the story did serve as a reminder on how to do ministry day in and day out and continues to do so today for the chaplains serving our fellowship.
The Charis Fellowship (Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches) has a history of courageous ministry by her chaplains. Our legacy includes Chaplains Orville Lorenz and Don Carter, each received the Silver Star for gallantry and heroism in World War II or during the Korean War. It includes Chaplains John Schumacher, Emlyn Jones, and Charlie Bearinger who served during the Vietnam War. Almost all our current chaplains and many recently retired have served in Iraq or Afghanistan in 1990 or after 9/11. Whether in war or peace, they represent our Fellowship but more importantly, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in an incarnation ministry as they share the Gospel in their daily interactions while “trooping the line” and in the preaching and counseling on a daily basis.
So the next time, you hear about four chaplains, I pray that the names of Youstra, Hayes, Graham, Galle, or any of our chaplains will come to mind. I hope you’ll remember to pray for them, for safety, for effectiveness in ministry, for their families who deal with frequent separations and for all those in uniform so that they might know personally the Prince of Peace as they serve our nation in harms’ way. — by Mark Penfold, Col., Ret., U.S. Army, chaplain endorsing agent, Charis Fellowship