The Four Chaplains

I spent Easter Sunday doing a lot of research into the year 1943, which is the setting for a piece of fiction that I’ve been working on for a while now.  It was a quiet day and I wasn’t feeling too well, so instead of writing, I decided to read the Internet until my headache demanded otherwise.

I came across several interesting stories, but the one that seemed most appropriate for this very holy weekend of Good Friday, Passover and Easter was that of the Four Chaplains.  The four chaplains were a rabbi, a priest and two Protestant ministers that were shipping out to Greenland on their way towards an undisclosed location in 1943.  They were on board the USAT Dorchester, a cruise-liner-turned-transport ship with slightly over 900 sailors aboard.  The Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine when it was off the coast of Newfoundland and had to be abandoned.  The four chaplains organized the evacuation to get as many sailors into rescue boats as possible, while getting as many of the rest into life jackets as they could.  When the life jackets ran out, they gave their own life jackets up for others.  Survivors reported that while the ship went down, the Four Chaplains had their arms linked and were praying together for the safety of the sailors, most of whom died.  Hundreds lost their lives to hypothermia, even though the Dorchester was being escorted by three other ships.  just over two hundred of the nine hundred survived, which are numbers that are hard to even imagine.

I am not a faithful person – I was raised without a faith and have never been able to find one that felt like it fit me.  I’ve flirted with a few over time, but seem to be mostly drawn to those that don’t require a firm committment from me to a particular set of ideology, which seems like it misses the point of it all.  I don’t believe in God, mostly because it’s a difficult practice to begin when you weren’t raised surrounded by other people who do believe.  But, unlike a lot of athiests who do come out of religious homes, I have a really deep respect for people who do.  I strongly believe in the value of having a faith practice and a faith community.  I’ve always been jealous of people who come to that naturally — even having a religion to rebel against gives you a cultural identity that I just don’t have.  And while I have a deep respect for the practitioners, I have an even deeper respect and admiration for the leaders in faith communities, because their committment to God seems so unshakable.  We do not live in a world in which much is unshakable.

So, in reading about these four men of God, each from a different faith, who were joined and bonded in that faith as they died together, absolutely gave me chills.  It was nearly seventy years ago that they died, but the way they died and the way that they lived, choosing a dangerous life of service, has touched me.  So here’s to the Four Chaplains, to unshakable faith, to people who willingly sacrifice their own lives so that others may live.  And here’s to interfaith service and four men who died praying in three different languages.  There are so many different lessons in their story for all of us.

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