Last weekend, at our diocesan convention, Bishop John Bryson Chane presented him with the Bishop’s Award, an honor we bestow not quite annually upon someone in our diocese who has done extraordinary work. Previous winners are Verna Dozier, Iris Harris and the Rev. Loren Mead.
Stuart’s acceptance speech is beneath the continue reading tab, and I urge you to read it.
Bishop Chane, thank you for this honor. Twenty six years ago, on a day trip, I stood in this place with my wife Fran. I was a Methodist minister in the inner city of Philadelphia. I remember distinctly, standing near the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and saying to her, “This place is so holy… I would love to be a part of a church that knows this as home.” And so to stand here now and receive this award seems to draw all of my life into this moment. Thank you.
At Christ Church, a young child once said, “You always talk about love and peace – how can you be in the Army?” This stopped me for a moment, but then I answered, “Because I want all the soldiers to know that there is no place where God is not – even in the stress, confusion and horrors of war.”
I am acutely aware of the spectrum of thoughts and feelings about what is happening in the Middle East and the Gulf region right now. What I want to say to you does not touch that, but the ministry I was privileged to offer the men and women of our military while deployed in Iraq.
Christ Church, with a strong staff and deep and broad lay leadership, never lost a step during this deployment. They also saw this as an extension of ministry from the parish and diocese. They made it possible.
Nothing could have ever totally prepared me for the physical and emotional reality of deploying into Baghdad. Most of the ideas I had about it were displaced and replaced by the sobering and hard realities on the ground. The closer I got to Baghdad, the more things went from my head to down here where we live [gut].
New realities, new challenges, new anxieties and fears brought new normals, new trust, new courage and new understanding of God’s grace.
Everything I will tell you in these next moments is offered with the deepest gratitude for our life together – your prayers over the last year and so many kind expressions of love and support.
From Bishop Chane, Cheryl Daves Wilburn, Vance Wilson, (headmaster of St Alban’s School), Frank Wade, Phillip Cato, my entire parish church, to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and my own beloved family at home.
Your prayers and concern meant everything to me and the troops to whom I ministered. Those troops by the end of the deployment numbered 1,800. Our areas of operation were principally in Baghdad, but also included Fallujah, Ramadi, Taiji, Forward Operating Base Falcon and the International Zone. You must hear this with utter clarity – your prayers brought strength, comfort and courage in ways and proportions difficult to articulate. And I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart.
The prayers and connection to all of you became discernible and palpable at particular moments as distance vanished and there was a oneness in the Lord. I will tell you of three of those moments:
First: Ash Wednesday. 0430. The dark of morning. The first convoys were ready to depart on the day’s mission. Over the rumble of Humvees and helicopters overhead, troops gathered around the chaplain. First prayers and then by flashlight, one by one, seeing into their eyes, the words attending the imposition of ashes were spoken: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It was sobering beyond belief. Most of you would be either speaking or hearing those words 12 hours later.
Second: On the 5th of April one of our battalion units on a mission came under complex and coordinated attack with Improvised Explosive Devices and small arms fire. One Humvee was struck by a shape-charged IED. That kind cuts though all the armor you can put on a vehicle and makes a living hell inside. Chaos ensued. Another element of four Humvees rolled up from behind and established perimeter security as the young female company commander rushed to the stricken and overturned vehicle. There were four injured. Two very serious. Two critical. Communication was knocked out. With one hand, she applied a tourniquet to the troop’s leg. It was mostly gone. With her other hand she’s on a cell phone back to the Tactical Operations Center giving grid coordinates to bring in some helicopters for MedEvac.
Back at Camp Liberty, after receiving the initial report, we quickly assembled a convoy to meet them at the Combat Support Hospital in the International Zone. Once there I shuttled for hours between operating and recovery rooms, and the troops of that unit clustered in various waiting areas and just outside the hospital with their vehicles. There were about 40 or so in all.
The surgeries were taking hours. The docs removed the leg of the one troop and heroically tried to stabilize him. But they had to let his body rest from all the trauma, even though his other leg was receiving almost no blood. He could go six hours. They were back at work in three.
I asked the surgeon, “What are we looking at here?”
“Chaplain, there’s about a 20 percent chance to save the leg – and its 50/50 on his life.”
At one point during the hours in this surgical pause I walked outside into a large courtyard. The sun, now orange, was getting lower. Thankfully the hello traffic had ceased. In this bent reality, I just needed some quiet. And then, looking at the world-wide cell phone another chaplain lent me for these troops, I had this great urge to talk to someone in a place and state of normalcy.
Believe it or not, I called 815 Second Avenue, the Office of the Episcopal Church’s Bishop Suffragen for Chaplaincies.
“Is Bishop Packard in?”
An assistant said he was in Richmond holding a chaplains conference.
“Oh well, thanks anyway.”
“No, wait – let me look at the schedule,” he said. “They’re on a break right now. Try this cell number, he’ll want to hear from you.”
After a few attempts, Bishop Packard was handed a cell phone and came on the line.
We greeted one another. “Bishop George,” I said. “I’m not flipping out or anything, but here’s where I am and what is happening… I just wanted to speak with someone, hear the voice of someone, in a place that is normal. I just wanted to connect. I knew you’d understand.”
Bishop Packard said he was at that moment in a procession waiting to begin a Holy Eucharist. “What are the names of the soldiers?” he asked. “We will pray for them on the altar.”
After that, Bishop George prayed with me on the phone from half a world away. Strengthened and joined as church, I returned to the troops. We ended up being in the Combat Support Hospital for nine hours. We encountered miracles. Everyone lived. The soldier’s leg was saved. They would be airlifted to Germany by morning. We reassembled our convoys and headed back to Camp Liberty. Morning would come soon – more missions.
And finally. An e-mail sent just after Easter:
Greetings to all. Thank you all for your prayers and support for the men and women who serve our nation in this place. I also think of and give thanks for all the young men and women not in the military who use their God-given gifts for the good of our nation and human family. Each must serve where called. Many of them our own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.
Here is something I wrote shortly after our Easter Vigil ended here in Camp Liberty, Baghdad.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! From the land where faith was born 4,000 years ago when Abram heard the voice of God somewhere deep within himself, “Abram, I am the living God. Through you and your descendents, which will be numbered with the stars, the world will come to know me and be blessed. Go forth.” And then two of the most revolutionary words in the Bible, “Abram went.”
Four thousand years later in a humble battalion chapel at Camp Liberty, Iraq, a makeshift Paschal candle illuminated the way for a makeshift Easter Vigil of unbridled joy. Seven brothers in Christ raised the first “Alleluias” of Easter in this land of faith, deepest history, conflict, war and the killing of too many innocents.
We live in a Good Friday world, but even here we know we are an Easter People: A new community born of resurrection power and love. No darkness can overcome it. Christ, crucified, entombed, risen and ascended now reigns with an everlasting love. And we have met that love in his presence in bread broken, a cup shared and our heartfelt cries and prayers for a just and secure peace, and end to the killing, and the peace of the Lord God ruling every heart.
Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus. God bless this diocese, the life we share and the work our Lord gives us to do.