By Professor Jonathan L. Walton
“How carefully most men creep into nameless graves, while now and again one or two forget themselves into immortality.” —The Rev. Phillips Brooks
On Feb. 3, 1943, tragedy struck the SS Dorchester, an American troop transport ship traveling in a naval convoy in the North Atlantic. With the ship less than two hundred miles from its intended destination in Greenland, a German U-boat fired a torpedo into its side. Conditions could not have been worse for evacuation and rescue. The ship was originally built as a luxury liner with a maximum capacity of 400, then converted to military use early in 1942. Even though it had been equipped by the military with additional lifeboats and life jackets, the lifeboats proved too crowded and the life jackets too few for the approximately 900 officers, servicemen, and civilians aboard. For those who were able to evacuate the sinking ship, hypothermia awaited in the frigid ocean. Ultimately, only about a quarter of those aboard the vessel survived.
Despite the horror of this tragedy, several survivors shared similar, inspirational accounts. As the ship went down, soldiers were aided and comforted by four Army chaplains: The Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), The Rev. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed), and Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic). These men worked fearlessly to assist their fellow passengers. They helped some into rescue boats and ultimately surrendered their own life jackets in order to save others. Survivors recounted hearing prayers in Hebrew, the singing of Protestant hymns, and soldiers receiving the last rites. Until their last breaths, these four chaplains carried out their duties with courage and complete selflessness in the face of the gravest danger.
As we celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Memorial Church, we are inspired by such tales of service and sacrifice. Whether we commemorate the heroism of these four chaplains—who first met at the Army Chaplains School at Harvard—or that of the other 1,113 fallen soldiers whose names are inscribed on our walls, this is the message the Memorial Church strives to instill in our students. While too many define success in terms of power, social status, and the accumulation of material goods, there is a better way to achieve “the good life.” Life is not about what we can earn for ourselves. To the contrary, as we learn from the Jesus we proclaim each Sunday morning, our lives are measured by the good we do unto others.
Today, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of spiritual ideals that challenge us to think empathetically, feel compassionately, and act courageously out of love for our sisters and brothers.
This is why we will explore the theme “Redefining Success: Living a Life of Service and Sacrifice.” Our services, musical events, and speakers will recognize those who have had the courage to reimagine achievement. Thus, we will hear from citizens, soldiers, and public servants who have subverted convention and challenged the status quo when these things limit our idea of what we should strive for in our lives.
For instance, three-term United States Senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth will grace the MemChurch pulpit. Sen. Danforth’s affirmation of marriage equality and opposition to the death penalty have often placed him at odds with leaders of his own political party. His writings and leadership have challenged us all, however, to transcend bitter political partisanship even as we act on our deepest convictions.
We will meet someone else who had the courage to defy expectations when former All-American football player Dr. Myron Rolle visits MemChurch. When he graduated from Florida State University in 2009, Rolle turned down a near certain selection in the first round of the NFL draft in order to pursue a master’s degree at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Many NFL teams questioned his commitment to football, which caused his stock to plummet and led to his selection in only the sixth round of the next year’s draft. After a brief stint with the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, Rolle returned to Florida State to enter medical school. Now Dr. Rolle—who plans someday to open clinics in poor countries that do not have pediatric neurosurgeons—is a resident with the department of neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a role model for student-athletes everywhere.
This term we will also welcome a military couple, Army Capt. Emily Hannenberg and former Army Capt. and Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Rachel Neasham. These West Point graduates work tirelessly to encourage communities to value the beauty of diversity and inclusion. Both volunteer in local schools to teach young people that racial, religious, gender, and sexual difference strengthen America’s armed forces and America itself. Their message is morally clear and consistent: When we embrace, nurture, and serve alongside those who are different from us, we reflect the best of our nation’s ideals.
These are just a few of the many speakers from whom we will hear this term during the Faith & Life Forum, Sunday morning worship, and Morning Prayers. Several musical events will also help us commemorate Veterans Day this year, as we rededicate the Memorial Church in recognition of our 85th. We will screen the 1925 silent film “The Big Parade.” Among the first films to document the terrible human cost of war for all involved, it follows a young American soldier in the Great War, the idle son of a wealthy family, who finds purpose and love among the French working class. Famed organist Peter Krasinksi will play an improvised organ accompaniment. The choir will also hold a special Evensong on the Sunday evening of the Commemoration of Benefactors and the War Dead.
When those four chaplains from varying religious traditions met on Divinity Avenue in Cambridge, I am confident they had no idea tragedy would forever unite them. Yet they died in the same way that they lived: in the service of others. They forgot themselves into immortality. May the sermons we preach, the songs we sing, and the lives we live reflect and encourage such an orientation to the world.
Jonathan L. Walton
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister
in the Memorial Church of Harvard University