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Asking the Clergy: What is the message of Four Chaplains Day?

From left, the Rev. Thomas A. Cardone of

From left, the Rev. Thomas A. Cardone of Kellenberg Memorial High School, Rabbi Melinda Zalma of Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and Tom Bergin of Suffolk County American Legion. Credit: Ray O'Connor Studios; Donald Chapman; Patricia Bergin

Four Chaplains Day, an interfaith observance held on Feb. 3, commemorates the heroic actions of a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Methodist minister and a Dutch Reformed clergyman in a World War II maritime disaster. The men were serving aboard the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester when it was sunk in the Atlantic on Feb. 3, 1943. The chaplains tended the wounded, calmed frightened soldiers and gave away their own life jackets when they ran out, according to fourchaplains.org. They went down with the ship, their arms linked as they prayed. This week’s clergy discuss the lessons of such heroism.

Tom Bergin

Chaplain, Suffolk County American Legion, East Patchogue

The messages of the four chaplains can be found in the basic beliefs of all the world’s religions. They are love and faith. For thousands of years, it has been said, "No greater love has one man than to lay down his life for another." (John 15:13) How many men would do this?

However, 78 years ago almost to this day, four chaplains did exactly that by giving up their life jackets — their only means of survival. This act of love was truly admirable. The second message is faith. Four men of different religions stood together in prayer, each praying to the God of his faith. They locked arms with each other, and all four men knew their death was inevitable.

At such a moment, I want to see into their minds. Yes, they knew that they would die. But each had the belief and faith that he was going to a better place. Were they thinking that on this day, "I will be with God"? Think about how great it would be if all of us could have that love and faith.

The Rev. Thomas Cardone

Chaplain, Kellenberg Memorial High School, Uniondale

Reflecting on these heroes of 1943, three messages emerge for today. Like them, we should foster an interior life of prayer and meditation, for this is the foundation for courage. Share the strength and peace that flow from your interior life to another, especially to individuals who feel like they are sinking in the midst of life’s challenges.

Second, in the Gospel of John (15:13), Jesus tells us "No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." Though we may not be asked to die for another, we are all called to give up selfishness and sin so that we can live for others. Like them, foster a life of self-giving and self-sacrifice. Give whatever may be your "life jacket" as a sign of compassion to another in need.

Finally, like them, foster a spirit of communion and cooperation for the common good. Together they encouraged those on the Dorchester to stay strong; together they prayed and stood arm in arm as the ship went down, serving as a sign hope that will never be forgotten. Be a witness of hope in the rough seas of life!

Rabbi Melinda Zalma

Chaplain, commander, U.S. Navy Reserve Component, Quantico, Virginia; program director, Jewish Community Relations Council of New York

The story of the four chaplains is inspiring not only because of their bravery and sacrifice. It is their shared purpose and commitment that shows us the way forward as Americans. Despite having very different views on religion, the four chaplains united in a higher purpose. They did not discuss theology to make sure they shared the same values before they decided to work together. They did not first ask the soldiers to identify their religion or confirm their faith before helping them. It did not matter; all were human beings in need. For the Torah teaches that we are all created in God’s image. (Genesis 1:26)

Today, we too often are only willing to work with those who agree with us, who seem to value what we value. We recognize certain needs that resonate with our understanding of the world and miss the needs of those we don’t understand. Instead, we should emulate the four chaplains and see the higher purposes, like freedom and democracy, that we have in common. Let us remember that we are all human beings, each singing prayers according to our own traditions, acknowledging that we each have a unique path to God.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com.

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