Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S.A.T. Dorchester began to sink, and four chaplains on board did what they knew how to do — bring calm to a chaotic situation. In the end, Chaplains Rabbi Alexander David Goode, Father John Washington, Rev. George Lansing Fox, and Rev. Clark Poling made the ultimate sacrifice, as they gave up their life jackets to save four others. Though spiritual leaders of four different religions, together, they stood in prayer as the ship went down into the North Atlantic Sea.
In today’s world of diverse interfaith relationships and worldwide connectivity, this may not seem so unusual, but during World War II, such a heroic interfaith partnership was unique. Each year on February 3, the day the Dorchester sank, we mark Four Chaplains Day and not only remember their sacrifice but the example it provides for us today.
This year, the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress held a series of Four Chaplains Day events and Interfaith Alliance was honored to co-host the final event in this series on February 16. Bringing together military chaplains of the Jewish, Methodist, Muslim, Baptist and Reformed Church in America faith traditions who represented four different service branches, the panelists focused on current issues facing military chaplains and how chaplains balance ministering to people of all faiths while still remaining true to their own doctrine and beliefs.
Interfaith Alliance President and State of Belief Host Rev. Welton Gaddy served as the moderator for what proved to be an enlightening discussion. In his opening remarks, Rev. Gaddy hailed the Four Immortal Chaplains as “a shining example of the possibility of unity forged out of diversity and of cooperation among religious leaders.” The panelists discussed a variety of topics including their personal paths to the military chaplaincy; the impact of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal on chaplains; the experiences of minority faith groups in the military; and how they help service members cope with the stresses of military life. The full video of the event is available on the Interfaith Alliance website.
In closing, Rev. Gaddy asked us all to imagine what the Four Immortal Chaplains of WWII would look like in today’s increasingly-diverse military and reminded us that it is not the religion, ethnicity or gender of a chaplain that is important. What matters is chaplains’ shared commitment to ensuring no service member “is without the possibility of expert counsel, compassionate care, and life-enhancing support…to moving among differences to highlight what we share in common.” Rev. Gaddy’s hope, one that I’m sure we all can share, is that the challenge to the chaplains of today “is not to die together in an exemplary manner, but to help all of us learn how to better live together.