By Norris Burkes Oct 30, 2022
In 2009, I was the senior chaplain responsible for Sunday worship services at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq.
One Sunday, a few hours before our 10 a.m. service, I watched my sleepwalking, still jet-lagged, chaplain assistant, Sgt. Peoples, fuss with the chapel arrangements as if preparing for a visiting pope.
He’d adorned the altar with properly colored cloths and arranged the folding chairs, loading them with Bibles.
Pouring the communion cups was his last job.
“How many cups should I prepare, Sir?”
“Really?” he said.
“I need you to fill 20 cups with purple grape juice but set aside five cups with white wine in the center of the communion tray.”
We’d seen less than 15 congregants on the previous two Sundays, and I suppose he didn’t want me having any illusions of grandeur.
“Where’s your faith, Sergeant?”
“Don’t that kinda go against General Order No. 1?” He accented his question with a chuckle, but he knew the order prohibiting alcohol in a war zone made allowances for religious services.
“We are out of white wine,” he told me. “Is it ok to grab some rosé from the priest?”
I said OK.
The combo of wine and juice on the tray is a chaplain practice that helps accommodate congregants ranging from teetotaling Southern Baptists to stein-grabbing Lutherans.
A few minutes later, Peoples had filled thimble-sized cups as instructed. He then lit the candles, smoothed wrinkles from the altar cloth with his broad hands and replaced the crucifix from the early morning Catholic service with the plain Protestant cross.
It was only our third service in the war zone, but it went off without a hitch.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for Chaplain Johnson who ran the evening service. He frowned upon such accommodations involving liquor.
Johnson was from something I call the frowning tradition. He seemed more comfortable leading his parishioners in the “shalt nots” than the “thou shalts.” He promoted his church covenant, admonishing chapel attendees to “abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks.”
He reminded me of my sixth-grade Sunday school teacher who asserted that Jesus never turned water into wine. “Actually,” she said, “Jesus transformed the bad wine into the most excellent version of Welch’s 100% grape juice.”
Since the uncompromising Johnson was scheduled to leave the following week, I decided not to impose the blended communion policy on the conservative chaplain.
However, I did order Peoples to clean and refill the communion trays as a parting favor to Johnson. But as sometimes happens, God had other plans.
When Johnson entered our office that evening for our daily change-of-shift report, he looked past me and smiled, apparently pleased to see the communion trays already filled with grape juice and ready for his 8 p.m. service.
The next morning, Peoples and I arrived for our report, and we found Johnson loaded for bear. He’d strewn the unwashed communion trays across the desk and proceeded to give us hell, or his version of it anyway.
He recounted how he’d preached a particularly rousing swansong and then raised a communion cup toward the congregation to cue the unified imbibing. He pronounced, as most Baptist clergy do, “This cup represents the blood of Christ spilled for you. Take it and drink it all.”
Then he threw back the half-ounce content like a shot glass and coughed out a raspy question, “Is there something wrong with this juice?”
In hearing his version of the service, I hid my smile as I imagined bemused parishioners licking their lips and responding in chorus, “It’s wine, chaplain. It’s real wine.”
My sleepy assistant had inadvertently filled all the communion cups with the Catholic rosé.
With the broadest of frowns, Johnson declared, “Today was only the second time in my life that I’ve had wine.” Apparently, a few of his roguish high school friends tricked him into tasting wine 20 years previous.
As I watched him pack his few things from our shared desk, an impish smile formed in my mischievous heart.
I profusely apologized while jokingly pleading to be excused for my sergeant’s faux pas.
“I’m so sorry, but I missed the seminary class where we learned how to turn wine into Welch’s juice.”
He wasn’t amused, but his smile returned the next week when he was given his ticket home.
As it did for most of us who practiced the “smiling tradition.”
Parts of this column are excerpt of Norris’ book, “Hero’s Highway.” Please read past columns on my website, www.thechaplain.net Send comments to [email protected] or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or via voicemail (843) 608-9715.