21 August 2007

A Fine Sermon

A friend of mine - I've mentioned him before - was a POW in Laos. He recently sent me the text of an address he had given at the dedication of a new chapel at a VA facility, which I present here.

Chapel Dedication

Veterans Administration Medical Facility

Vancouver, Washington

August 4, 2007

During the Vietnam War, a newly captured prisoner had spent the usual first month of captivity undergoing interrogations and savage beatings. After he was moved in with other prisoners he mentioned that during that month he’d really gotten religion. The conversation went on for a few minutes when another prisoner interjected, “Wait a minute...just which religion did you get?” He replied, “All of them.”

What religion does this chapel represent? All of them. So whose chapel is this? God’s.

We’ve all heard there are no atheists in a foxhole. That is simply not true. But it is true that the longer you are in a foxhole, the less likely it is that you remain an atheist.

A “Foxhole” is where you go for some measure of safety and protection when you are in danger. A foxhole can be as simple as a hole you dug in the ground, or as complex as a mentally constructed safe place which only exists in your mind. Simply put, you need to place yourself in a secure spot to review your situation with your Maker; and discuss with Him an approach to whatever comes. This is not to say you can “solve” your problems. But it does suggest you can address these problems with the one who made you.

My personal observation as a prisoner of war was that atheists in solitary were very, very lonely. This makes logical sense. They didn’t have anyone to talk to.

A foxhole can also be as simple as a solitary table at the back of the mess hall. At Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base during the height if the battle for Vietnam, the pilots mess hall was filled with tables that seated ten. But if you noticed--they weren’t easily seen--there were three or four very small tables way in back, against the far wall. Each was large enough for two but only set for one. When you came in for a meal, it was customary to look around for your buddies and join them.

Unless a friend was seated at one of the small tables.... Those tables, by common understanding and agreement, were reserved for those who needed to be alone. A bad mission; a disturbing letter from home.... If you chose to sit at one of those tables you expected, and got, the privacy you wanted. Too many times we had all, at one time or another eaten alone in the back of the mess.

I’d had a bad mission. Flying the Skyraider, an old propeller driven fighter bomber left over from Korea, on rescue missions over North Vietnam, and Laos, we seemed to have too many bad missions. I sat alone. In a total breach and disregard of all decency, the Catholic chaplain walked up and sat down at my table. My resentment flared immediately.

Had he said anything, even a simple, “Hello”, I probably would have told him to leave. When the waitress arrived I order dinner, totally ignoring him. We had attempted to rescue a pilot from behind enemy lines. We did succeed in recovering him from the jungle but he died of injuries on the way home.

I didn’t want to talk. Fortunately, my unwanted guest remained silent. The waitress brought him a cup of coffee. I don’t remember him ordering anything.

I returned to my own thoughts of this very successful mission which failed. Strangely I found comfort in having a human sitting nearby, not intruding, just being there.

As I finished my meal the priest stood and as he left he placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I don’t know if you will live or die. But I do know you are held in God’s hands.”

We are here today to dedicate the new Chapel. It has taken years to accomplish. First, it was a spare room. Then it was a room where we held services. Furniture was moved in, a simple alter, a piano and a few chairs. All very simple and very private.... The only nod given to the religious character of the room was to be a panel of lovely stained glass windows. Again, simplicity. It became “The Chapel”.

The biblical admonition is that when you pray, enter into your closet. Matthew 6:6-8 Before coming to this room today I stopped by our chapel. I think it makes a very good closet.

Shortly after an unsuccessful escape in another camp, the North Vietnamese Army became very concerned that we were planning an escape from our camp. They determined to “make us tell the truth”.

After several weeks of brutality, sleep deprivation and dehydration, I was pretty much reduced to a stinking biological mass on the floor of the interrogation room. Whatever humanity I might have had, had long since departed. I was no longer even an animal. The stench of my body was horrid. Without a breath of breeze, the heat of summer in Southeast Asia compounded the foul odor of the interrogation room. On a number of occasions I recall floating up to a corner of the ceiling where I could look down and watch what they were doing to me. I watched, but as long as I stayed on the ceiling I was safe. I could not control when I would return to my body but when I did, it hurt far beyond comprehension.

The descent into pain and insanity is slow, a slow and excruciating immersion. Over the course of weeks of unending torture, in the fog of pain and insanity we had all been broken many times over, but the torture went on, seeking answers which did not exist.

At some point, when back in my body, I cried out, “God, help me.”

I vividly recall the chief interrogator, kicking me over with his foot, sneering, “Your God will never find you here.”

My reply was, “Well then I won’t embarrass myself before Him.” And with that, I emptied my bladder. I didn’t realize the body could store up so much liquid. The smell of the urine on top of the already sickening stench of the room was over powering. The interrogator raced from the room and screamed at two of his bully-boys.

They grabbed my arms and dragged me out the door, across the compound and down the trail to my solitary concrete hut. There they dropped me by a well and spent a long time throwing buckets of water on me. Finally done, they dumped me into the cell, slammed the three inch thick door, and ran three steel rods through the hoops imbedded in the outside walls and across door. I had been returned to the safety of solitary—returned to my closet.

That evening I was given a watery soup, a small piece of bread, and a small pot of water. Night came and I slept. In the morning I was given another meal like the night before. Shortly thereafter I was called out of my cell and was able actually able to walk the hundred yards or so back to the interrogation room. We picked up where we left off. We went on for about three more weeks.

I had called out to my Maker for help. He answered me. I received the first bath I’d had in weeks, two meals, water, and a full night’s sleep. God didn’t find me in that camp...He was already there. My final release was not to come for three more years but at that moment He gave me rest and succor; He gave me peace. Why didn’t he release me? I don’t know. I do not presume to understand His unfolding creation. I did not, and still do not comprehend his Plan. But I know I asked to serve Him, not the other way around.

Those events took place thirty-eight years ago. Today we are here to dedicate our chapel. Our closet...a small private place...this one without bars on the doors. This is a secure retreat where you can speak frankly with your Maker. This chapel is always secure...and never secured.... The door handle is on the inside of the door.

I don’t know if we will live or die, but I do know we are all held in God’s hands.

And so is our Chapel.

God bless you all.

Edward W. Leonard,
POW Laos, 1968 - 1973

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