I think you will agree that the words Dad offered then are as poignant and relevant to us today as they were to the soldiers assembled in November 1963. This homily was offered during times of national strife experienced in a civil rights movement often met with violence; the height of fear of mutually assured nuclear destruction between the US and USSR in the dangerous stand-off known as the Cold War; and the ramping up of the war in Viet Nam (where my father would eventually be deployed and serve for a year in 1966-67.) Those were stressful times. Times of immeasurable social change and disruption of what people considered to be “normal.” Times of fear.
Those times and the accompanying emotions seem very familiar to us today.
Then, during that historical backdrop, on the occasion of one of the most shocking events in the history of the United States, a young man from Bainbridge, brought up in The Methodist Church, ordained to word, order, and sacrament, and to offer Christ to the world—and in this particular context, the men who were committed to service to our nation and sworn to defend and uphold the principles of freedom—he brought hope that is, and becomes, the Gospel. Where love conquers all. Where even “one little word will fell” the evil we deplore.
In this season of Veterans’ Day, as I remember my father’s faithful service and the hundreds of men and women to whom he ministered, and the 54th anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, I commend to you this homily and hope that it will reach across the years to inspire you as it has me.
Chaplain (First Lieutenant) Jerry Woodbery’s address to the men of Division Artillery, 2nd Infantry Division, Ft Benning, Georgia at the command memorial service the Saturday morning following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. Chaplain Woodbery was 28 years old.
“We come this morning to pay tribute to our fallen leader, John F. Kennedy.
“He gave all that he had for his country, as have men down through the history of this land. The bullet which killed him was fired by the hand of the greatest enemy which this country has ever faced. It was fired by the enemy which you and I face every day of our lives. It is an enemy which threatens to devour our country and all that we hold to be good, just, pure, and righteous. It was fired by the enemy which tramples under its foot all which we hold holy.
“This enemy is the most evasive this country has ever fought. It has not attacked us in [an] armored column, or the bombardment of bombs, or in fleets of aircraft, or the tromp of soldiers’ boots. This enemy has marshalled its force in the hearts of men like you and myself. This enemy is the fanaticism of hate and prejudice which strikes at the very foundation of our country’s strength.
“This foe of hate and prejudice is not a new foe to us or to mankind. The Europeans met him in the 30s and 40s. We Americans have met him face to face at Gettysburg. He has been confronted in the streets of Chicago, New York, and Birmingham. Yesterday he struck again in Dallas.
“His victims are legion. They range from 6 ½ million Jews in the crematoriums in Europe to one lone Negro shot down on the steps of his home in Jackson, to the death of a president in Ford’s Theater in 1865 to John F. Kennedy yesterday.
“God, himself, in Jesus Christ, also suffered at the hands of our foe. But he was triumphant. It is this victory which spurs us on in our conflict. It was his triumph which brought from the battlefields of Gettysburg through Lincoln a united country. And it is in the triumph of God our hate and prejudice that we’ll bring from the death of John Kennedy a nation which will be united in love of freedom and justice for all man… encouraged by the knowledge that the right and might of God is on the side of those who strive to overcome the hate and prejudice which attacks the heart of all men.
“In the death of John Kennedy let us rededicate ourselves anew to the causes for which he died. Freedom and justice for all men, motivated by a love for all men regardless of race, color, or creed, through the grace of God.”
Pro Deo et Patria (For God and Country)*, Dad.
From the Heart of the Connection,
(*The motto of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.)