Monday, December 1, 2008

A Church Service

I remember attending church services in Vietnam only a few times. For the most part, we were in the field on small combat operations and away from such religious opportunities. However, one service has set an indelible mark on my memory. It was during the mid part of my tour. Our unit had been in the field for some time and it had been a mouth and a half or two months since I had attended mass. After this period, our company arrived at Doug Tam near the city of My Tho; the 9th Infantry Division southern most major base camp in the Mekong Delta. It was Sunday when we arrived at this camp and after we had unloaded our gear and set up in barracks, I felt a compelling need to find a chapel and the celebration of Catholic mass. I asked around and someone pointed me in the direction across the camp. He said that the chapel was quite a distance away. I set off in late mid afternoon for what I would find was a trek through the dusty base roads. It was a walk in the Delta humidity and hot sun. I was tired when I started and as I walked, I became more tired. On my trek I lost my way a couple of times and had to ask for directions.

When I arrived at the chapel, I walked in to this round wooden building. It had a low rising dome and windows set in around the exterior wall of the structure. Glass windows were unusual in this war zone as explosions from incoming mortar rounds could blow them inward. Although it was not large, it was an impressive structure in the midst of long barracks and other rectangular military buildings most of which were covered with canvas roofs. I was hot, dusty, and tired and felt frustrated after the long walk. Inside the chapel, the altar was set in front of the wall near the door through which I entered. The floor was laid in long planks and the ceiling was open with its beams exposed. A semi-circle of wooden pews, maybe ten rows deep, surrounded the altar on three sides. I quietly took a seat near the door at the right of the altar. In my distraction, I hadn’t taken the misselette from the table next to the door. The misselette is a book with the mass prayers and bible reading for the mass of the day. One man kindly walked to me and gave me a misselette. I must have looked uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the proceedings so this man, a young guy like me, opened the book to the proper page. I reacted in a frustrated way. Some of my religions pride poked out and I said to myself “what’s this guy doing, I’m know what’s going on.” In a few minutes, I began to relax and I settled in for the service. It was early in the mass, the time just after the opening prayers. A soldier got up, walked to the altar, and read the first two readings for the day, one from the Old Testament and the other from the New. I don’t remember the message of those scripture readings nor that of the Gospel passage that the priest read; however, I do remember a few words from the priest’s sermon. They are engraved in my mind.

The priest, a taller man with short graying hair who looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, stood squarely at the ambo at the left of the alter. He spoke about love to the soldiers present. However, his words in no way reflect the Christian message in I Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; . . . it does not rejoice in wrongdoing . . . Love never fails . . .” This priest’s words sent another message as he boldly proclaimed a moral stance, “It’s alright to kill as many Vietnamese as you can and you can have sex with as many women as you want. But just make sure that love your buddies!” At first his words sounded appealing. They gave me permission to do things that my teachers and ministers taught were wrong. Then the full impact of what he said set in and I thought, “this man is nuts!” “How could he say such thing and from the alter.” His words shocked me. I was in a daze for the rest of the mass, almost reeling from his words that had little to do with the Christian love instilled in me as I grew up. After the mass, I left the chapel and as I walked back to my barracks anger permeated me as this priest’s words that condoned violence, even unnecessary and indiscriminate violence, and the sexual use of women swirled in my head. I knew that acting on what he said would profoundly inhibit the experience of love for which I longed.

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