Friends of Padre Steve’s World,,
This is an article I wrote for our workforce at the Naval Shipyard where I am honored to serve at as the Chaplain. I officially retire on August 1st but have been selected to remain in a retired and retained status until the end of the year, due to the COVID19 Pandemic. The shipyard which employs over 13,000 sailors, Navy civilians, and contractors is a key strategic asset for the country. It did not have an assigned chaplain for over a decade until due to medical issues which delayed my voluntary retirement last year, evolved into mistakes in how the retirements branch calculated my date for statutory retirement left me “homeless” so to speak as my relief was already in place.
So, the Naval region decided to put me at the shipyard where unlike my last assignment I was given a mission totally suited to me and how I do ministry, in which I have tremendous support, and made me far busier and gain fully employed. I am really happy to serve in such a diverse place in which about we have members of many religious , as well Atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, from about every race and ethic group found in America. My job is to care for them, not convert them. It is also to inspire and encourage by my example. Since it is hard to get to know people who work multiple shifts 24/7 in person I mix inspirational messages which I work hard to craft to hopefully be able to reach all members of the workforce, not simply Christians. My basic thought is if they either wear the uniform of the country, or have sworn an oath to the Constitution, they have every right for me to care about all of them, without cramming My faith, religion in general, or the Bible down their throats. In fact that is the mission of a Chaplain, Chaplains are only employed by the government to protect people’s Constitutional right of “free exercise of religion, without violating the establishment clause.” I care for their spiritual, emotional, and a host of other concerns, and when I unable to perform the service or sacrament they need to help them find someone who can, while letting them know that I will do all I can to support them. I do my best to follow up later to ensure that they are getting the assistance they need, be it religious or secular, and if need be there to advocate for them.
The assignment at the shipyard has revived my faith and calling, which had taken a severe beating at my last assignment. Had I retired from there I would have probably retired bitter and angry. Instead, I have in a sense been reborn. Despite the danger of COVID19, the daily inane babbling of the malignantly narcissistic and sociopathic President, and all we are terrible things we are doing dealing with, I know I am where I am supposed to be, and I am doing what I am bound by both duty and love to do. I am happy and truly blessed. As Lou Gehrig said “I am the luckiest man alive”
But I digress…
This is my Memorial Day message To them, and also to you for our COVID19 era. It involves a Navy Chaplain, and Rabbi, who served with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Though I never met him, I would have loved to work with him, because he demonstrated what I think are the highest virtues of a Chaplain. His sermon has burned an imprint on my heart. I hope that it finds a home in your heart too.
Theirs is the Highest and Purest Democracy: Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s Eulogy at the Dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima.
Memorial Day is one of the most solemn days in our national calendar. It is a true holiday, for by observing it we take the time to remember, reflect, and hold the lives of those who gave the last full measure of devotion of duty to our country as holy. It is as sacred as an secular holiday can be.
As such I want to share the words of Navy Chaplain and Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who served with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Rabbi Gittelsohn was the son of a Rabbi from Cleveland, Ohio. He was a pacifist before the war, but believing it to be a just war he volunteered to serve as a Navy Chaplain with the Marine Corps and was assigned to the 5thMarine Division.
With the Division he landed at Iwo Jima, taking part in every day of the operation, ministering to the wounded and dying regardless of their faith, and helping the Navy Corpsmen and Doctors in the gruesome task of saving lives. During the battle over 26,000 Marines and Sailors serving alongside them were killed or wounded. Even before the battle was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz uttered the immortal words “Among the Americans who served… uncommon valor was a common virtue.” When the battle was over, the Marines recovered their dead from temporary graves and made a proper cemetery.
The Division’s Senior Protestant Chaplain, Warren Cuthriel, ordered Gittelsohn to lead an ecumenical memorial service and dedication of the cemetery. Sadly, reflecting the prejudices of the day, many Protestant and Catholic Chaplains objected to a Rabbi leading a service at a cemetery where mostly Christian Marines and Sailors were interred. Others objected to any ecumenical service no-matter who led it. Gittelsohn decided not to add fuel to the fire, so with Chaplain Cuthriel’s permission, he attended the main service and then conducted a separate service for the fallen Jewish personnel. After the service Chaplain Cuthriel obtained a copy of it and forwarded it to more receptive members of the chain of command. It spread like wildfire when it got to the United States. Pastors read it in their churches, newspapers printed it in its entirety, and radio commentators repeated it. Eventually it was read into the Congressional record.
The words invoke the ideals of an America and a Constitution that we all swear to support and defend. The sermon has a feeling like that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and looked forward to a time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would preach that one day people would be judged by the “content of their character.” Rabbi Gittelsohn’s words were revolutionary for their day, and ours alike. But they call us to aspire to all be better Americans. So this weekend we remember all of our fallen, from the Revolution until today, who died to preserve freedom and defend our nation. Their sacred task has been passed to us, as Lincoln noted at Gettysburg: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Gittelsohn remained active in ministry and an advocate for civil rights until his death in 1995. His service and dedication as a Navy and Marine Corps Chaplain challenge me to be a better servant of God, our shipyard family, and country as we face our current crisis.
Here is his sermon.
This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.
It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us, had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”
No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our division who are not here have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it be the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.
Anyone among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of all races alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.
To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.
When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers—will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.
When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.
Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come—we promise—the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say…Amen