Reflections: Visit to a far-off cemetery offers lessons in sacrifice

Bishop Woodie WhiteOn a crisp, wintry day in February, the director of the United Methodist Endorsing Agency and I, accompanied by an Air Force chaplain from the North Alabama Conference who is serving in England, visited the Cambridge American Cemetery. The cemetery, located in Madingley in southeastern England, is one of 14 permanent World War II memorial cemeteries erected outside the United States by the American Battle Monuments Commission.The superintendent who oversees the site escorted us, telling the story of the cemetery as well as the personal stories of many of those buried there. It is sobering to look upon row after row of white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David. There are 3,812 servicemen and women buried here. Oh, the price of freedom!In addition, the superintendent took us to view the Tablets of the Missing, a massive wall of Portland stone, 472 feet in length. The tablets contain the names and other information of 5,126 of those lost or buried at sea, or missing in action. There are also those listed as “unknowns,” whose remains could not be positively identified. It is difficult to express the rush of emotions one feels in such a sacred space. These were not statistics for us to read quickly as we moved on. These were reminders of men and women, loved ones, who had once enjoyed life and made the ultimate sacrifice for country.One fact that many people may not realize, is that among our honored dead are military chaplains. Pastors who left the security of a congregation in a city, town or village to serve in a different kind of “parish” that requires personal sacrifice and, perhaps, the giving of life itself.The Cambridge American Cemetery in southeastern England. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There are six chaplains commemorated at the Cambridge American Cemetery, the superintendent noted, including three whose names are on the Wall of the Missing. As we remembered them, the superintendent told the story of four gallant chaplains who were made famous partly because of a documentary film about them. The four—two Protestant clergymen, a Roman Catholic priest and a rabbi—were aboard the Dorchester, a U.S. Army transport ship, when it was attacked in 1943. The four chaplains were lost at sea after giving up their life jackets so that four soldiers might be saved.

Three chaplains are among the 4,000 buried at Madingley. As previously arranged, I laid a wreath at the grave of one of the chaplains, and we offered prayers for all of them and for their unique flock. Two flags from the cemetery—one American and one British—now sit at my desk as a daily reminder of all of those who have paid the ultimate price, and a reminder of the terrible burden of war. It was an unforgettable afternoon.

On May 28 the nation will observe Memorial Day. For many it will be the holiday that marks the beginning of summer. Picnics and the gathering of families with a host of festive activities will fill the day. Yet, so many others will mark the day with solemn ceremonies, visiting gravesites or taking part in parades of thanksgiving and remembrance for those who have offered and continue to offer themselves so that a nation might remain free and a way of life might be preserved.

This Memorial Day, I will remember my visit to that far-off cemetery. And I will know that there are other burial places not as distant in towns and cities across America for those of every religion, race, color, ethnicity, social class and political perspective, who have made possible the freedoms we enjoy and yet are too often taken for granted or even abused.

As I remember and give thanks for such sacrifice, I shall continue to pray for a world where nations and leaders of nations will “study war no more”!


Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

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