Jan. 31, 2008, Grand Rapids, Mich. - Chaplaincy director Rev. Herman Keizer is asking Christian Reformed congregations to take a moment this Sunday to remember four chaplains who died 65 years ago aboard the Dorchester, a United States Army transport ship that sank in the frigid North Atlantic.
The chaplains, who perished when the ship went down on Feb. 3, 1943, are credited with saving dozens of passengers as the result of their calm in the midst of the chaos after the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
"The four chaplains of the Dorchester embody the ministry of presence in the most humble, yet heroic manner," says Keizer, who heads the CRC's Chaplaincy Ministries. "Their story is one that should be told continually because it demonstrates the presence of God in a manner that transcends differences of faith and doctrine."
Keizer spoke at a special prayer service held each year at West End Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids to honor the four chaplains. About 200 people attended the event that included other speakers, prayer and music.
"These were four different people," Keizer told those who gathered for the afternoon event. "They came from very different backgrounds, experiences, cultures and religions. If they shared any one thing it was a belief in God, who was the creator of the universe and of all things in that universe."
The chaplains included Rev. George Fox, a Methodist minister from Vermont; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, who served a Jewish congregation in Pennsylvania; Father John P. Washington, a Catholic priest from New Jersey, and Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed Church pastor from New York. Along with more than 900 men and women, they were on the way to Greenland when the torpedo struck.
The chaplains had spent many hours with the sailors, soldiers and civilians who were crammed below deck. "They moved among the men and women on board, listening to their stories and fears, praying with the fearful, sharing their faith with those whose faith was faltering, conducting worship services, organizing talent shows, leading the singing of psalms and hymns and just being present with the troops," Keizer said.
The Dorchester was near Greenland and moving through what was known as "Torpedo Junction" when the torpedo hit, hurling people from their cots. Some died instantly. Others were wounded. Survivors struggled to reach the deck. Many were without life jackets.
"Through all this commotion and disorder, the soldiers heard the calm voices of the chaplains," Keizer said." They saw them handing out life jackets; heard them urge for order."
Finally, the chaplains had handed out all of the life jackets. Some people jumped into the sea without jackets, but the chaplains stayed on the icy deck. Each took off his life jacket and gave it to someone else.
"The soldiers reported hearing songs and hymns from the chaplains," Keizer said. "They heard over the screams of pain and terror, the chaplains giving their final testimony. They were giving and receiving strength to each other and to their soldiers with their final declaration of faith."
When the Dorchester went down, the four chaplains and hundreds of others went down with it.
Among the more than 200 people who survived, many later told the tale of the four chaplains. Over the years, the story has offered inspiration to other chaplains and anyone else who hears it, Keizer said.
"Now it is our task to learn and practice the brotherhood that the four chaplains taught the soldiers and merchant marines of the Dorchester," he said. "We are a diverse and pluralistic society and we need to claim the brother and sisterhood that come with being God's creation."
-Chris Meehan, CRC Communications
Director of Communication
Christian Reformed Church
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"It is a serious waste to let a day go by without allowing God to change us."-Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love