Letter from the Dean

By Gregory E. Sterling

One place that I often take visitors is the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT, located in the greater Hartford area. The museum is the former home of Theodate Pope Riddle, a pioneering architect. Theodate grew up in Cleveland but attended Miss Porter’s School (a finishing school) in Farmington in the 1880s. She fell in love with the area and persuaded her parents to build the home that later became the museum. In 1915, Theodate made arrangements to travel to England on the R.M.S. Lusitania which was torpedoed and sunk by a U-Boat. She was pulled from the water unconscious and taken to a morgue. Only 761 of the 1,959 people aboard survived, but she was one of them. A year later at the age of 49 she married and lived another 30 years.

The sinking of the Lusitania was a major tragedy in a war filled with them. It only took 18 minutes for the ship to sink. In such situations, it is critical to keep your head or panic will ensure the end. We do not know how we would react In such a situation, but the way that we react to crises in our lives is an indicator. 

We are in the midst of multiple crises: a global pandemic that shows no signs of slowing, a teetering economy that desperately needs a solution to the Covid-19 virus, a racial crisis that summons us to address entrenched centuries of systemic racism, an environment that is repaying us for our abuse of the earth with calamities that are coming with unanticipated speed, and a political maelstrom that has polarized our country bitterly. How are we reacting?

Ultimately our orientation is toward God, not ourselves – a deep and abiding hope in God that orients our lives and enables us to act in ways that we did not think possible.

We planned this issue well over a year ago, long before there was any hint of Covid-19 and the aftermath that came in its wake. We did so because we believed that centrifugal forces that move us apart had become more powerful than the centripetal forces that bring us together, that individual advancement had overshadowed the common good, that rhetorical volume was silencing truthfulness, and that fear had filled our hearts rather than hope. And then came the spring and summer of 2020, which only intensified all of these concerns exponentially.

We offer these essays, poems, reflections, and brief studies with the desire that they will remind all of us that ultimately our orientation is toward God, not ourselves. Not in the sense of human optimism or expectation, as Miroslav Volf explains, or in the sense of simplistic “throw-pillow theology,” as Ellen Koneck reminds us. But a deep and abiding hope in God that orients our lives and enables us to act in ways that we did not think possible. This was demonstrated in the life of Harriet Tubman, as Donyelle McCray testifies, and in the career of John Lewis, as Jeffrey Haggray recounts it. We cannot confuse God’s power with the power that we see in society, as Willie Jennings so helpfully points out. Our hope is in God who transcends us and yet is with us.

One of our alums demonstrated this in a way that I will never forget. At the outbreak of World War II, Clark Poling ’36 M.Div. decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a chaplain in World War I, and serve as an Army chaplain. At chaplain school he became close friends with George Fox, a United Methodist minister; Alexander Goode, a Reformed rabbi; and John Washington, a Catholic priest. The four chaplains boarded the USAT Dorchester, a luxury ocean liner that had been converted into a troop transport, in New York on January 23, 1943, on their way to the European theater. In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, a German submarine torpedoed the ship about 150 miles from Greenland. According to reports, the chaplains spread out and helped to calm the troops and get them to the deck. Once on deck the chaplains began to distribute lifejackets. Engineer Grady Clark described what took place. He said that once there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains immediately removed their lifejackets and gave them to four frightened young men. As the ship sank, the survivors saw the four chaplains braced on the now slanting deck, arm in arm singing and praying. Some reported that they heard English, Hebrew, and Latin. Grady Clark reported:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Only 230 of the 902 men aboard the USAT Dorchester survived. Poling had written his father and asked him to pray for him before he boarded the ship: 

“Not for my safe return, that wouldn’t be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty … never be a coward … and have the strength, courage, and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate.”

Poling and the other chaplains were more than adequate. They stood as beacons of hope for the sailors who survived, beacons of hope because they had hope in God. May we do the same.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School.