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Five ways to become one: rather than go down with the ship, Christians can come together for the common good. Making it work can be as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee or picking up a hammer.

On January 23, 1943 the USAT Dorchester set sail from New York Harbor, bound for a U.S. military base on Greenland. Aboard were 900 passengers and crew. Watching over them were four Army chaplains: Father John Washington, a Catholic priest; George Fox, a Methodist minister; Alex Goode, a Jewish rabbi; and Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed pastor.

They were an "odd foursome," as author Dan Kurzman put it in his book No Greater Glory (Random House), with a difficult task--giving blessing, aid, and comfort in desperate circumstances. The Dorchester, an aging coastal liner pressed into action as an overloaded troop carrier, was in such poor shape that some labeled her the "suicide ship." They were headed into the U-boat-infested North Sea off Greenland; six months earlier those U-boats had torpedoed and sunk the Dorchester's sister ship, the USAT Chatham. Most of the men aboard the Dorchester had never been on a ship before and became violently seasick.

In this kind of crisis priorities become crystal clear. A chaplain is a "servant of God for all," as the military's chaplain training manual put it--and Fox, Washington, Goode, and Poling threw themselves into serving their companions. They organized prayer services, teased the men about their poker playing, held a talent night, and always seemed close at hand. "They used to come through the ship, looking to give aid and comfort to the men who were sick in bed," says Benjamin Epstein, who was aboard the Dorchester as an Army private. "They were as sick as the rest of us, and still they would come and give you an uplift."

On the night of February 3, 1943, a German submarine fired three torpedoes at the Dorchester, fatally wounding it. During the pandemonium that followed, the chaplains kept their heads. They handed out life vests and prayed for the men who leapt in the sea to escape the sinking ship. Some of the men were paralyzed with fear, and the chaplains grabbed hold of them, pressed life vests in their hands and stood by as they clambered down ropes into waiting lifeboats. When the life vest closets were emptied, the chaplains took off their own vests and gave them away. As the ship went down, eyewitnesses recall that the chaplains joined arms and raised their voices in prayer as they sank beneath the waves.

Of the 902 people aboard the Dorchester, only 230 survived. Many of those who made it credited the chaplains. One survivor described the chaplains' actions as "the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven."

Crisis management

Christians today are in the same circumstances as the Dorchester chaplains, ministering to anxious people in desperate times. Around the world more than a billion people are trapped in grinding poverty, living on less than $1 a day. War rages in Iraq and Darfur; AIDS is ravaging sub-Saharan Africa; natural disasters have created thousands of refugees.

Closer to home, Americans live in a culture that seems increasingly frayed, in which materialism and the pursuit of "personal happiness" undermine the ties that bind communities together. Christianity, at least in the West, seems on the wane, dying out in Europe and beginning to fade in the U.S. a study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler shows that only 21 percent of Americans attend Christian worship in any given week. That finding is still impressive: The 331,000 congregations in the United States, with an average attendance of 162, total more than 53 million in attendance. Still, it's only half of the 42 percent figure from Gallup polls usually used to estimate church attendance in the U.S.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in a 1999 speech described the condition of Christianity in the West this way: "Now people--whole groups and even cultures and countries--that once knew Jesus Christ have decided that they don't care to know him any longer."

Even worse, the Christians who remain can't seem to get along. For almost 1,000 years Catholic and Orthodox Christians have been split. Protestants split off in the 1500s and have continued splintering to this day. A schism looms in the Anglican communion, while the launch of Christian Churches Together--a group trying to get Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox churches to cooperate on social issues--has been postponed indefinitely. While the group's organizers say that "productive and positive conversations" are continuing, news reports have been less optimistic. The Southern Baptist Convention, at 15 million members the largest Protestant group in the United States, has "no intention" of joining. Historically black denominations are skeptical about the group's prospects.

Enough bad news. What do we do now? I have five suggestions--two philosophical and three practical.

First the philosophical ones.

1. Make friends

Begin by seeing our fellow Christians as companions rather than competitors.

The writer of Psalm 119 claims to be a "companion of all who fear thee"--and that scripture should be written on our hearts these days. Christians are all in the same boat, surrounded by a world of desperate people who need to experience the love of God in Jesus Christ. Like those chaplains aboard the Dorchester we are in a moment of crisis. That crisis dwarfs our theological and ecclesiological differences and forces us to look on what we hold in common.

"There is one body and one spirit," writes Paul in Ephesians 4, "just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all."

2. Start small

American Christians, like all Americans, are enamored with "big" things. Evangelicals build megachurches that fit in basketball arenas; mainline Protestants build national bureaucracies; Catholics, from what I observe, build institutions and hierarchies. Yet Americans neglect the power of small day-to-day graces and ordinary relationships.

Before his untimely death in 2003, I had the chance to interview Mike Yaconelli, longtime editor of the Christian humor magazine The Wittenburg Door. What he said about how the temptation to be "big" has affected American Christians has stuck with me ever since. "Our secular pagan culture doesn't make us get drunk," Yaconelli said, "it makes us dull. It robs us of our creativity. We don't sit around thinking, how can I redeem this situation? We have lost the power of the tiny, of the small, of the little thoughtful things that we can do for each other that will make all the difference in the world. We don't run around doing these little acts of grace that we ought to be doing."

Rather than getting all the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians to get along, perhaps we can get local Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants to get along, or have Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant neighbors sit down together over coffee and talk to one another, face to face.

3. Get to work

There's a common misconception that if we get people to talk to one another and build relationships somehow they will work together better. More often we build relationships by working together. Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller calls it the "theology of the hammer."

In the mid-1970s Fuller organized Habitat around one simple concept: He believed that people who disagree about everything else will agree that "everybody deserves a simple, decent place to live." And, if given the chance, they will pick up a hammer and get to work. Since 1976 Habitat for Humanity has used that concept to built 175,000 houses around the world.

For four years I worked for Habitat for Humanity in Chicago and saw the same thing week after week. Catholics, Baptists, megachurch evangelicals from Willow Creek Community Church, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Unitarians would gather at a Habitat worksite and after a short prayer would get busy. Theological distinctions vanish quickly when you're standing on a ladder, holding a 4-foot-by-4-foot sheet of 1/2-inch drywall over your head, waiting for someone to screw it into place. When all you care about is whether the person is handy with a screw gun, their position on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the role of women in ministry doesn't matter much.

The same principle came into play in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Dominican nuns in Houston turned their convent into emergency housing. Southern Baptist volunteers provided more than 2 million meals. Christian relief groups sent funds and supplies.

Evangelicals and mainline Protestants in Houston organized volunteer teams to feed the thousands of evacuees housed at the Astrodome.

Deacon William Ditewig, executive director at the Secretariat for the Diaconate of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told Religion News Service that in times of crisis it is "easier to erase rather than draw lines between groups."

"Hurricanes don't ask one's religion," Ditewig said. "I think it's the natural thing to do to reach across denominational lines."

4. Chow down

Eating together also can erase boundaries. That became clear to me on a subzero winter morning in the early 1990s, when a group of 20 or so volunteers gathered in the basement of Presentation Catholic Church in Chicago. Presbyterians and Methodists, evangelicals and Catholics, they had spent the morning at a Habitat for Humanity worksite, putting up insulation and hanging drywall in an unheated three-flat building. Tired, cold, and dusty, they now sought relief at lunchtime, sharing coffee and sandwiches in the church basement.

During a break in the conversation a Methodist man in his 50s turned to me with a look of surprise on his face. "I don't think I've ever been inside a Catholic church before in my life," he said. Until he was invited to join a Habitat work team, he went on to say, the thought of mixing with Catholics had never crossed his mind. But that morning he had prayed, worked, and shared a meal with them--and that experience had changed him.

Jesus understood the power of eating together and often was criticized during his earthly ministry for sitting at table with the wrong kind of people. He also drew his disciples from people who otherwise never mixed. In his commentary on Matthew's gospel, Michael J. Wilkins, dean of the Talbot School of Theology, makes an interesting observation: One of the chief sources of Roman tax revenue was the fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. It is possible, then, that Matthew had collected taxes on the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John. So what does Jesus do, after calling Matthew as a disciple? He and the other disciples have dinner at Matthew's house.

5. When in doubt, pray

Finally we can pray together. Granted, barriers that separate Christians become clear during prayer: Evangelicals prefer spontaneity; Catholics and the more liturgical Protestants are accustomed to formality. And despite having one Lord and one faith, Christians of differing traditions do not share the Eucharist together.

This again is a place to start small. All Christians share the Lord's Prayer, which Jesus taught us all to say. The psalms provide a common language of prayer that all Christians share. And most of us know the most humble prayer of all--"Help"--when we feel in need of God's aid.

There is also danger in praying together. Some Christian groups have in the past forbidden their members from praying with outsiders. In 2001 David Benke, a Missouri Lutheran Synod minister, was suspended for taking part in a post-9/11 prayer services that included Catholic priests along with Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders. Even though Benke prayed in "the precious name of Jesus," at the time his action was seen as sinful.

There is more danger, however, in not praying. When we don't pray together, when we only pray with those who are "good enough," when we don't acknowledge that our standing before God is grace, we become afraid of God's mercy. We stop believing in grace.

"We are scared to death of grace," Yaconelli said. "We are worried that it is going to be abused or misused. And of course, we only worry about that after we are in. And then we decide to help God by becoming grace monitors and grace police and by saying, 'God's really busy and he has got a lot to do, so we will make sure that nobody else gets in.'"

When we don't pray, we are also blinded by our human vision of the church and focus on the flaws of our fellow Christians, who "sing out of tune or have boots that squeak or double chins or odd clothes" and whose faith or doctrine is inferior to ours, as C.S. Lewis' Screwtape put it. When we don't pray, we miss the true church, "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, as terrible as an army with banners"--a church that makes demons quake and inspires chaplains to take off their life vests and give them away. A church that feeds the hungry, clothes the needy, humbles the night, and gives hope to a world in desperate need; a church worthy of the name of Jesus.

By BOB SMIETANA, features editor of the Covenant Companion and a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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Date:Jan 1, 2007
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