Editor’s note: The story below will be included in remarks by Charles McGathy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C., at a 9/11 ceremony this Sunday.
I’d like to share with you a story. This happened in the days following 9/11 while I was serving as Command Chaplain at Naval Base Coronado, Calif.
It is not fiction, but the literal truth. Though I’ve never shared it publicly before, I feel compelled by the Spirit of the Living God to share it now.
It is the story of Howard, a Methodist lieutenant chaplain, who served under me in those days.
Howard was on his second tour of duty in the U.S. Navy when he reported to me. None of us were sure in those days what our future was going to be in the wake of 9/11.
We all expected to do our duty; though some – like Howard – would pay a larger price than others. No, he was not killed in combat or even wounded, but he was called again and again on deployment.
It seemed that every Marine unit going to Iraq wanted a piece of him. He had certain cultural and linguistic skills in addition to religious insight that were highly in demand.
Iraq in those days was hard duty, fraught with danger. Howard did not remain in the protection of the compound but went out daily on patrols into Iraqi villages and encountered people who could not be easily defined as friend or foe.
The work was dangerous, but Howard’s sincere manner and genuine care for the people dispelled hostility and fear almost everywhere he went.
Later, field commanders would write in official reports just how invaluable the chaplain was not only in providing religious care or ensuring its provision for the troops under his charge, but also Howard’s unique ability to de-escalate hostility and thus avoid needless bloodshed.
Things, however, were not so easy for his family. Back home his wife and five children frequently found themselves in great stress.
For Howard’s wife, English was a second language. She depended on her husband’s skills to help her in day-to-day life.
The separation was made only more difficult because this officer’s wife had become the object of ridicule and rumor in the off-base community in which she lived.
She began to fear not only for her safety, but also for the safety of their children in a neighborhood that was growing increasingly threatening. She found solace in her faith but longed for the day Howard would return.
That day was delayed again and again. Howard was just too important. Had he been a less skilled chaplain, less physically fit, less capable as a naval officer, surely he would have returned at the end of his initial deployment.
When it came time for my evaluation of all of the lieutenants (an exercise I found irksome), my selection of Howard as the number one chaplain was self-evident.
Eventually I got orders and transferred for my final assignment to Europe. I never got to see Howard return, but I did learn that his life did not change much.
He was sent again and again to the combat zone. At last this officer with the brightest of careers ahead left the Navy at the end of his obligated service agreement.
He was burned out, tired. In his brief career, he had already seen more family separation, more human horror, more family stress than most that wear the uniform see.
That is the Navy’s and the nation’s loss, but I hope he realizes how much he changed the outcome for thousands of Marines.
His willingness to undergo hardship and go in harm’s way was in the finest traditions of the Navy and Marine Corps, and they make him stand tall in the company of all Americans who love their nation.
And now I admit to you that (for a good reason) I did not tell you the whole truth.
Everything I just shared with you is true except two things: First, Howard’s name is not Howard, but Hussein. And he is not a Methodist, but a Muslim – a Muslim imam to be exact.
“And Jesus concluded his parable, ‘In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man attacked by the robbers?’ The teacher of the Law answered, ‘The one who was kind to him.’ Jesus replied, ‘You go, then, and do the same'” (Luke 10:36-37).
Hussein is just like the overwhelming majority of American Muslims. He loves his country, and he loved and cared for the sailors and Marines to which he was assigned without regard for their religious background.
He provided or facilitated ministry not only for Muslims, but also for Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and those with no religion at all. He was in Jesus’ words the fulfillment of what it means to be a good neighbor.
But this is not about his actions, not about the attitude of one Muslim; it is about us.
And the hard questions that we must ask ourselves are: Do we follow Jesus’ command to go and do likewise? Do we treat our religious neighbors as we wish to be treated? Or do we make them the villain, an object of scorn and derision?
Do we invent lies about their religion or willingly pass along half-truths and innuendo aimed at creating a climate of fear? Do we secretly believe we are more American than they are because we have the “right” religion?
These are not easy questions, but they are important questions to ask ourselves if we are going to be faithful students of rabbi Jesus.
CharlesMcGathy was commissioned as a naval officer in the Chaplain Corps in 1984 and spent 22 years serving the men and women of the sea services on three continents and at sea. He retired at the rank of commander in 1996 and answered a call to serve as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, N.C.
Commander Charles “Chuck” McGathy served in the Chaplain Corps of the United States Navy for 23 years. He has been the pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, North Carolina, since 2006.