On February 3, 1943, 76 years ago last Sunday, the troop transport USS Dorchester was traveling in a convoy of three ships from New York to Greenland, carrying approximately 900 men. The ship’s captain had been alerted that Coast Guard sonar had detected a submarine, and the ship’s crew was on a state of high alert. However, many of the men, sleeping deep in the ship’s hold near the engine, were not wearing their lifejackets due to the heat.
At 12:55 a.m., a German UBoat torpedoed the Dorchester off Newfoundland in the north Atlantic. The torpedo knocked out the ship’s electrical system, leaving the ship dark. Panic set in among the men, many of whom were trapped below decks. There were four chaplains on board George Fox (Methodist); Alexander Goode (Reform Rabbi); Clark Poling (Reformed Church in America), and John Washington, a Catholic priest.
The supply of life jackets ran out. Although each of the chaplains was wearing his own, each chaplain took off his life jacket and gave it to one of the men. In the midst of panic and chaos, the chaplains sought to calm the men, help the wounded, and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship.
The chaplains remained on the ship, continuing to encourage the men as the sailors and soldiers climbed into the lifeboats. With their arms around each other, the chaplains prayed and sang hymns as the Dorchester sank. As the men in the water watched, they could hear songs and prayers in Hebrew, English, and Latin.
Last Sunday was Four Chaplains Day, created by a unanimous act of Congress in 1988 and celebrated around the country. Theirs was an amazing story of courage, selfless love and sacrifice.
This month we are exploring love in action. What does that look like? Well, certainly it looks like the courage and sacrifice of the four Army chaplains who gave their lives 76 years ago.
We can all envision it – such a powerful and pure love that inspires men and women, living ordinary lives, to do the extraordinary and the selfless.
Notice I don’t call it a feeling. Love can be a feeling – we are awash with movies, cards, books describing love as an emotion. However, the love we explore today is not love that is targeted at a beloved other, like romantic love. Instead, it’s the love that does not discriminate, that goes out everywhere and to all of life. It’s the power of the divine, acting through and as us, to change our world, our lives and the lives of others in sometimes small and sometimes amazing ways. It’s the power of spirit, channeled through you, through me, through the heroes we meet, read about, or become.
The story of the four chaplains illustrates the power of love to take us from ordinary moments to extraordinary action. Love like that is not limited to combat, and it’s not limited to adults. I remember reading the story of Ruby Bridges, the little African-American six-year-old who in 1960 was the first to integrate the William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans. Federal marshals were ordered in by President Eisenhower to safeguard Ruby, as the New Orleans and Louisiana State police refused to cooperate.
Once inside her new school, she sat in an empty room as all but three white families had joined the protest and refused to send their children to the school. Those three white children sat in another room.
One morning, Ruby’s teacher, Mrs. Henry, saw her walking in to school. As she walked in, Ruby turned and Mrs. Henry saw her appearing to speak to the crowd. The crowd remained angry and hostile, and the marshals were trying to hurry Ruby along.
When Ruby got to the classroom, Mrs. Henry asked her what she had been saying. Ruby said she didn’t talk to the crowd but had been praying for them.
She stopped on the way home and prayed for them as well, asking God to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing. This child was six, but her courage changed the course of integration of public schools in New Orleans and throughout the country. The white children eventually came back, and Ruby graduated and went on with her education.
We also have all heard of the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who risked her life advocating for the rights of girls to get an education. Starting at age 11, she began writing a blog for the BBC on the need to educate young girls in Pakistan. In response to her rising popularity and national recognition, Taliban leaders voted to kill her and in 2012 she was shot by Taliban soldiers who boarded her school bus and asked for her by name. She recovered and has continued to be a global spokesperson for worldwide access to education. In 2014, at 17, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
These heroes inspire us with their inspirational acts. However, our world is also transformed by other, smaller acts of love and giving done for no reason other than to help another. You reach out to help an elderly neighbor who is housebound, visit a friend or acquaintance in the hospital, bring food after a surgery. I’m sure you all can think back and remember yourself what kindnesses you have done, received or seen.
We all know the joy we receive when we do even the smallest kindness for no reason other than to benefit another. When we do that, we know we are acting in the flow – we are acting as we are created to be. Giving freely gives us a sense of peace and joy we don’t get any other way.
We all know the story of the Good Samaritan in the Christian scriptures, in which a traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was robbed, beaten and left half dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite crossed to the other side and passed him by, but a Samaritan, shunned as an outsider by the Jews, stopped, picked him up, bandaged his wounds and took him to a place of safety and rest.
Discussing this story, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’
That’s the question that love asks.
Charles Fillmore wrote in Dynamics for Living that love, in Divine Mind, is the idea of universal unity. He writes “love is the power that joins and binds in divine harmony the universe and everything in it.” He uses the image of the heart, which is the physical representative of love in the body, as the heart keeps the blood flowing. In the same way, love keeps divine energy flowing through the universe. When we expand our experience of love beyond the ties of family or friendship to encompass all things and all people, we set free what Fillmore calls “a natural, equalizing, harmonizing force that in most persons has been dammed up by human limitations.” We diminish love by limiting it to the known. We are called on to be bigger.
We all have the capacity to live in love as deeply as any person we’ve discussed here. We too have the opportunity, every day, to live from a place of love, not just to feel love targeted at particular people. It is through this energy that the Divine comes into expression and lives as us, as we act in the world. By our actions, we bring into our world all aspects of Spirit – love, compassion, charity, hope, gratitude.
Love comes alive when we take action, when we live it. As author Mark Nepo writes,
“In the end, it is not enough to think what we know. We must live it. For only by living it can Love show itself as the greatest principle.”
In the days and weeks ahead, know that you will find many opportunities to live that principle – to shine as the light that you are. You have only to make the choice.