“Chaplain, sho am comfortin’ to see you there!” The young paratrooper, hugging the sun-baked ground, had spotted his chaplain close by. The entire company lay flat on their faces eating red dust. The Viet Cong, out of sight somewhere beyond, pulled pins on clamore mines extended from bushes and trees. Deadly shrapnel ripped up the area. Automatic weapon fire cut the air. Stand up and you’d die.

Here crouched men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, one of the first full combat units to enter the Viet Nam war. The chaplain was 34-year-old Major John B. Porter, a Southern Baptist from Cordele, Georgia. The assignment: a routine search-and-destroy mission that had penetrated a VC domain. The chaplain was there. He carried no weapon, not even a sidearm, but his presence was indeed a “comfort.” Ask the men—they’ll tell you.

While en route to Viet Nam with the unit last year aboard the troopship U.S.S. “Mann,” Porter found himself with seventeen days at sea—plenty of time, and a restless congregation. He pondered, “What would the Apostle Paul do if he were in my combat boots? He’d preach, no doubt!” Hold number five, a busy thoroughfare deep below, became the “sanctuary.” Seventeen nights, seventeen decisions for Christ.

A one-night liberty at Subic in the Philippines gave cause for concern. How would the new converts fare ashore? One rugged new believer, determined to live for Christ, spotted another new Christian “sinning.” He walked and talked him back on board ship, straight to the chaplain. A bit embarrassed at this kind of brotherly concern, Porter nonetheless knelt with them as the man confessed his sin to God. He took a peek as they prayed. There was the husky trooper, right arm over the shoulder of his penitent buddy, left arm bracing the deck. His rolled-up sleeve revealed a gaudy tattoo with just two big words: “RAISE HELL!” On arrival at Quinhon, eight of the seventeen waded into the surf for baptism.

The 173rd Airborne’s assignment was sprawling Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon, sometimes mortared by the VC. The airborne troopers are to secure the base and provide a defense against the continual probing actions of the Viet Cong. Jungle brush must be cut back to make camp. Night after night flares illuminate the sky. Harrassing fire by friendly forces rocks the air from sunset to dawn. Periodically the VC attempt to penetrate the air base. A savage firelight ensues, and under cover of darkness they pull off their dead and wounded. The vast jungle beyond the perimeter is constantly probed for enemy infiltration. Search-and-destroy operations cause the most casualties, for wary VC patiently await the patrols, laying mines and booby traps along their path.

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It’s a dirty kind of war, and a long year for the combat men.

One sight stands out in all this turmoil. Amid the tents and bunkers, artillery positions, and barbed-wire barricades, a modern A-frame chapel towers above all else, with a colorful French tile roof, stained glass windows, a quiet green garden, a reading lounge and the chaplain’s office. It can be spotted from miles away, and the question is invariably asked, How did it come to rise above these grim scenes of war?

The answer is a simple story of the sincere faith of many American soldiers and their determination to express that faith in tangible terms.

After the company’s arrival at Bien Hoa, Porter conducted worship wherever he could. Scorching sun, torrential downpours, powder-fine dust, or hot winds were common companions to a Sunday morning service. Low-flying helicopters or the roaring blast of a jet fighter on take-off would often drown out the words.

One afternoon, Porter suggested a permanent chapel to the men of the second battalion. A command-provided chapel might be long in coming. The paratroopers, noted for aggressiveness and determination, reacted quickly. Within a few days they raised $3,500 for the project. Then the men volunteered to construct the building. This had to be done on free time between operations. Because some of these men never came back, the task became a kind of sacred obligation.

Many months and many operations later, the final nail was driven. The chapel’s bell was a gift from a group of men in Odessa, Texas. A Vietnamese Christian craftsman designed and donated the large wooden cross suspended above the altar. An Episcopal church in Atlanta, Georgia, presented a beautiful silver chalice, inscribed with one Latin word, pax (peace). The chapel had found its name.

Peace Chapel is of symbolic design. The lectern, pulpit, and altar are of triangular shape, and the lines point upward toward God. Men can kneel near the cross, a silent, vivid reminder that true peace comes only through Christ and Calvary. Above the altar the mid-day sun sends shafts of gold, blue, and amber light across the quiet interior as men kneel. Sent to fight for peace, these men—many with two, three, even five Purple Hearts—kneel, pray, and leave to fight again with the hope that someday soon it will all be over.

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The chapel brings memories of the past and hope for the future. Chaplain’s Assistant SP/4 Raymond Bowen of New York eagerly anticipated its completion. But on an operation deep in VC territory he was killed by a mine while assisting a wounded buddy. Others remember SP/4 Robert P. Gibson of Georgia, who on his last Sunday in camp sang the morning solo. He was killed as he rushed ammunition to the front during an enemy attack a few days later.

While visiting casualties in the field hospital after one particularly heavy encounter, Porter approached one young GI who had had both legs blown off. Before he could speak, the young soldier asked eagerly, “Chaplain, how is our new chapel coming along?”

The chaplain, himself up for the Purple Heart, has had four young assistants, three wounded and one killed in action. Yet he recalls the providential care of God on more than one occasion.

Porter will return to the States this summer with many memories—memories of brave fighting men, some who won’t come back, others who will come carrying the terrible scars of war, still others deeply thankful to be alive and untouched. If Peace Chapel survives bombing, it will remain a symbol of that peace which Jesus Christ promised, peace he gave, peace the world desperately needs but cannot provide.

The Cross On A Stamp

For the first time since 1892, a United States postage stamp will depict the Christian cross.

The stamp will be issued July 30 to commemorate the birth of the Polish nation and the introduction of Christianity to the Polish people.

It will be the first U. S. commemorative to honor a specific religious event, although it follows by a year the stamp honoring the Salvation Army on the hundredth anniversary of the founding of its welfare work in the United States.

The stamp, to be printed in red, will feature a shield bearing the Polish crowned eagle, ancient symbol of the Polish kingdom (which the present Communist regime has tried to replace with the hammer and sickle). Above it will be the cross, with the inscription, “Poland’s Millennium 96 6–1966.”

The U. S. stamp originally was to have been issued on August 15 (Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and national feast day of Poland), to mark the arrival in the United States of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, primate of Poland, for a two-week visit. Apparently, however, Polish authorities will not permit the cardinal to make the projected U. S. tour.

American observance of the millennium will be climaxed August 28 at Soldiers Field, Chicago, by a service at which the cardinal was expected to offer Mass. The Catholic bishops of the United States are sponsoring the rites, at which Archbishop John J. Krol of Philadelphia will preside, whether or not the cardinal can attend.

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Postmaster General Lawrence F. O’Brien, in a move to play down religious aspects of the stamp, has moved up the first-day-of-sale ceremony to Washington, D. C., July 30, a date with no particular significance.

The only other American stamp on which a cross was significant was a two-cent commemorative—the first ever issued by the United States—that showed Columbus planting the cross in the New World. It was issued October 12, 1892, on the four-hundredth anniversary of the event. Crosses have appeared in the background on other U. S. stamps, on church steeples and the like, but not as part of the central design.


Protesting Priests Suspended

Two young priests in Moscow were suspended last month for writing a letter of protest against alleged infringement of religious liberties in the Soviet Union. Patriarch Alexei, the nation’s top-ranking Orthodox churchman, said it was a coincidence that the suspensions were handed down at just about the same time—late May—that the National Council of Churches in the United States made public the letter.

The priests, Nicholas Eshliman and Glebe Yakunin, both 35, wrote that Soviet authorities had closed at least 10,000 churches. Their letter, addressed to Soviet President N. V. Podgorny, accused government leaders of repeated violations of laws which are supposed to allow churches to run their own affairs.

Patriarch Alexei says the pair will not be reinstated until they stop what he called their campaign against the government.

College Aid Showdown

A showdown legal test of government subsidies to church-related institutions moved past Maryland’s highest court this month. The case is designed to get a ruling ultimately from the U. S. Supreme Court, which has never set any guidelines for the use of public money by religious schools and other agencies.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, overturning a lower-court decision, said church-affiliated colleges are not entitled to state grants. The judges, in a 4-to-3 decision, declared unconstitutional grants of $750,000 each to St. Joseph’s College and Notre Dame of Maryland (both Roman Catholic). A $500,000 state grant to Western Maryland College (Methodist) was also ruled invalid, but a similar amount to Hood College was held constitutional because the school’s legal relationship to the United Church of Christ is tenuous.

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The case against state grants has been pressed by the Horace Mann League, a non-profit educational organization, and thirteen private citizens. Chief attorney for the plaintiffs was Leo Pfeffer, special counsel for the American Jewish Congress. An amicus curiae (friend of the court) action was filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Commented Americans United Executive Director Glenn L. Archer, “Since the constitutionality of all such grants is now in question, it would seem advisable for church college administrators to hold requests for federal aid to their institutions in abeyance until there is a final determination of this issue.”

Religious Rumble At U.S.C.

With graduate studies in religion at secular universities the coming thing, a tug-of-war at the University of Southern California will be watched closely. Three of six graduate-religion staffers plan to quit because of the university administration’s handling of a merger of graduate with undergraduate religion studies.

Under the dissidents’ interpretation, the higher-ups not only made this major academic decision without consulting the faculty but also did it to force out their dean, Geddes MacGregor, 56, a Church of Scotland clergyman and noted author.

MacGregor has led the department since it was organized in 1960, following the departure of USC’s professional seminary staff to form the School of Theology at Claremont (Methodist). Enrollment rose to 100 by 1962 but is now half that, perhaps because of rigorous requirements in Hebrew, Greek, and other fields.

Academic Vice-President Tracy Strevey, who broke the news to the faculty in February, says USC’s undergraduate religion department (two fulltime teachers plus University Chaplain John Cantelon) teaches “hundreds,” while MacGregor’s department draws a “handful.”

Since the graduate faculty boosted a grad-undergrad merger two years ago and the administration showed no interest, it considers the current move a ploy to unseat MacGregor, who has been offered a “distinguished professorship” in the merged department.

The grad teachers thought Cantelon, a Presbyterian, was the university administration’s choice for the new dean. In the wake of their protest, a study committee was named. Strevey says the complainers “jumped the gun,” because the new dean has not yet been named and could be MacGregor. A report on the whole controversy is due this summer.

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Matters of budget, enrollment, and academic requirements might be at issue, but not the general orientation of the departments. Both the graduate and undergraduate programs espouse an objective, detached study of religion. As MacGregor puts it, “We are purely academic, pursuing our disciplines in a purely scholarly way. We have individual allegiances but they do not affect our academic work, nor do we ask students for information on this.”

Publicity Slams A Door

Several highly placed evangelical churchmen are withdrawing from a so-called consultation with ecumenical leaders following its public disclosure.

The evangelicals say they had been guaranteed, as a condition of their participation, that the meetings would be conducted with utmost secrecy. They charge that the public disclosure, although it did not identify any of the evangelical participants by name or organization, was a violation of the original agreement.

The consultation has embraced a dozen or so well-known evangelical leaders in a very general dialogue with three churchmen of strongly ecumenical persuasion. The meetings have been held each summer, several days at a time, for at least five years. Participants insist that no new ecumenical alignments were discussed and that the sole purpose of the talks was better understanding of one another.

General Secretary John Coventry Smith of the United Presbyterian Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations referred to the talks in a published report to his denomination’s General Assembly this spring. Kay Long-cope, United Presbyterian publicist, expanded on the disclosure in a widely circulated four-page news release.

Miss Longcope’s release identified the Presbyterian official as one of the ecumenical participants. She named the other two as Dr. Eugene L. Smith, U. S. executive secretary for the World Council of Churches, and Dr. Frank Price, retired missionary and former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S.

The release was interpreted by some as heralding a possible shift in the traditional conservative Protestant opposition to the ecumenical movement.

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