Sunday, February 7th is Four Chaplains Day. It is the commemoration of the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester and the heroic actions of four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.
The Dorchester was a converted luxury liner carrying 902 service men, merchant marines and civilians. As it crossed the icy waters from Newfoundland to Greenland, it was attacked by a German submarine. The sub fired three shots, one of which found its mark and the Dorchester began to sink. The captain gave the order to abandon ship. Panic and chaos followed. The four chaplains, on board, spread out among the passengers, trying to calm the frightened, tend to the wounded and helping the disoriented to find their way to lifeboats. Many of the survivors remember the chaplains praying, and continuing to speak in calm voices saying, "Their voices were the only thing that kept me going."
The chaplains gave their gloves to men who were going into lifeboats, and eventually, when they ran out of life jackets, gave their own life jackets to others who would survive the terrible night. As the ship went down, the four chaplains could be seen on deck, arms linked, offering prayers. There were 230 survivors.
For most of us, doing the right thing, does not involve laying down our lives. Yet, these four men gave up their lives so that others could live. The Rabbi did not ask if the person he was giving his gloves to was Jewish; the Catholic Priest did not ask if the person who received his life jacket was a Christian. At that moment in time, what mattered was that they were people who were able to help and support one another. They made the choice to put others ahead of themselves.
This story makes me wonder…how do we put ourselves ahead of others? How often do we ask whether the person we do business with is Christian? How often do we notice someone and wonder if they are Jewish, or Muslim, or Pagan? How often do we qualify our actions based on our beliefs about the religious orientation of another person? In a life and death situation, would it matter to you what the other person's religious beliefs are?
Our own prejudices, pre-judgments, are often subtle. So much of our behavior and our choices come from childhood observation. Often our behavior takes place out of habit, and not out of thoughtful consideration. I am grateful for people like George Fox, Alexander Goode, John Washington and Clark Poling who give us an example of another way to behave and to live.
The Rev. Paula Roper is an Independent Interfaith Minister in New Providence, New Jersey. She is available for spiritual counseling, weddings and other life cycle ceremonies.
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