Soldiers’ religious service vital part of holy season

By Clyde Davis: Local Columnist

We cut out the lights and engine on the HumVee, drifting through the last 200 yards of woodland, the snapping of branches and the light thudding of the wheels now the only sound to ruffle the South Georgia twilight.

We were rolling downhill, a gentle slope, leading into a streambed about 15 feet wide, surrounded by increasingly thick cedar and mountain laurel, which replaced the hardwood stands we’d been driving through.

There was, reportedly, a large rock shaped like a table in this location; as we hit the streambed, we could just make it out, 40 yards or so to the north. This was before the days of GPS orienting, so we relied on our map and the landmarks to tell us we were in the right location.

The air was cool and crisp — not cool by northern standards, but with the misty cool of the sandhills area through which we were moving. The moisture carried with it the pungent scent of the surrounding evergreens and the slow-moving water. Wild birds, many of them migrants, in their wintering grounds, began to chirp in response to our presence as we emptied the HumVee and set up the communion service on the table-shaped rock.

It was the Sunday before Christmas, nightfall in southwestern Georgia, as we had come out to lead chapel service in the field. My chaplain assistant, who had expressed several times the opinion that he would rather be home watching the Falcons play football, glanced around nervously. He was not the most field-friendly soldier I had ever worked with; his idea of accommodations was anything from the Holiday Inn upscale.

“Maybe they won’t show up.” he murmured. “Then we can go back to post.”

Only the slightest rustle in the surrounding bushes gave them away, as they glided in one by one, or occasionally in pairs. They slowly filled the hollow in which we had prepared the worship service, 25 or 30 of them in all. They were snipers, you see, and were used to moving very quickly and quietly, in very small groups, going unnoticed and unobserved.

Only when everyone was present did the lieutenant break the silence, signaling that, for now, the rules were lifted — it was OK to make noise during chapel.

Male voices were raised in familiar carols, as my chaplain assistant, a more than capable guitarist, took requests. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was received between lips surrounded by camouflage paint, and the timeless words of the nativity story were heard in the insulated valley where we worshiped.

It was true that these men would be coming in out of the field in two days, back to post in time for Christmas Eve with their families. It was also true that this service presented a kind of camaraderie, which made it no less a vital part of the holy season.

Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University. He can be contacted at: clyde_davis@yahoo.com