To my brothers and sisters at Christ Episcopal Church of Puyallup, who knew her well.
To her friends and family whom I don’t know, but loved her as I did.
To all people, whose world was better because of her even though they didn’t know it.
And to God, who knows her best, in case there was any doubt as to how I feel.
[I’m going to write this for as wide an audience as possible, because that’s how many people need to know this woman’s story. If you knew Elsa, I hope some of this reminds you of her. If you didn’t, I hope you’ll get a sense of what kind of person she was.]
I first met Elsa in January of 2007. My wife Jieun and I had traveled to Puyallup, Washington, for an interview visit to Christ Episcopal Church. Elsa was my Parish Administrator for the next four years. For those of you not familiar with the parlance of the Episcopal Church, parish administrator is what we call those (mostly) ladies who run our offices, coordinate our ministries, answer our phones, and generally keep things running. We used to call them secretaries, but at some point the word secretary started to feel slightly insulting, as in, “she’s ‘just’ the secretary.” These folks are important to us, so we started calling them parish administrators because that sounds better. It is a well intentioned but somewhat silly messing about with job titles.
The truth is that Elsa Woodard was never Christ Church’s parish administrator. She was much more important than that. She was our parish servant, a job she did with passion and precision from behind her desk in the little house we call our office. This little house, which matches our church and was built the same year, was only added to the church’s property in 2000. We renamed it “The Cornerstone” and converted it for officing. There’s a whole saga there which I won’t go into, but which Elsa gave me the full details of when I moved in.
It’s an intimate place to work. The house isn’t very big. Built in 1926 the bedrooms are tiny and the closets tinier. Elsa’s desk sat in the living room and mine in the back bedroom. We could talk to each other without getting up or raising our voices. Our phone system has an entirely unnecessary intercom feature. The kitchen and dining room are essentially unchanged, making the place feel much more like a home than an office.
The Cornerstone sees a lot of traffic during the week. I think the entire homeless population of Puyallup and the surrounding area knew Elsa. She received and sorted their mail. She kept a few clothes and items of food around for them. She let them use the phone and the bathroom. Vouchers for food, or heating bills, or a little gasoline went out each week. A dozen-odd little ministries—some started by the parish and fallen into Elsa’s hands because she was there, and others arising naturally from her own personality—we called these “Front Door” ministries because Elsa’s front door was always open.
Not that she was soft. Bleeding heart liberal she may have been, but she was no push-over. If she thought they were abusing the system, she’d let them know. She placed strict limits where she thought they ought to be, and enforced them with hard-nosed love. There’s one guy who travels the whole county picking up handouts with an air of aggrieved entitlement that you can smell a mile off. The second he’d open the door Elsa would say, “Kenny, don’t even start with me!” Sometimes he’d stay to plead his case. Most times he’d turn right around.
If Elsa thought there was even the slightest possibility (and occasionally when there clearly was not) that one of these folks might improve their lot in life, Elsa would work tirelessly to help them do so. I never saw her so pleased as when she heard that Beverly, one of our regulars who’d been living on the street for years, had managed to get a part-time job at Fred Meyers and a low-cost apartment to live in. Both of those things happened in no small part because of Elsa’s work.
To say that Elsa loved animals is like saying that gravity makes things fall: it’s not just true, it’s a law of physics. She kept more pet food than people food in the kitchen at the Cornerstone. The dog water bowl from the previous priest sat on the kitchen floor, unused, for a year after I got there. I eventually got a dog who drank out of that bowl. Mora is a big, fluffy, white Samoyed, and though I live in a small, second-floor condo, I wasn’t worried about Mora because of course I could bring her to the office every day and Elsa would take care of her, even if I wasn’t there. Mora stands out in a crowd, and whenever I walked her around the park next to my house I would inevitably meet a homeless person who’d say, “Hey, that’s Elsa’s dog!”. When condo life got a little too stressful for Mora and I, she because Elsa’s dog in fact as well as spirit. This past year and a half Mora has lived with Elsa and found her calling in making Elsa’s day just a little bit better by being an excessively furry and happy presence at her side. The three-to-seven cats in the house made Mora welcome too, as if they knew she was there not to torture them (though I’m sure that happens), but to care for their “mom”.
When Elsa retired and we had a party for her, it was a simple thing to pick a retirement gift. She didn’t need anything she didn’t already have, and besides, what do you get someone who has dedicated that many years to serving a place and people so fully? Well, if it’s Elsa, you collect money and send it to a no-kill animal shelter in Utah where she’d spent her vacation the previous year working to feed cats who suffered from seizures. We collected more than $500 at that party, and because she never wanted any attention for herself at all, I think it was the only part of that party she actually enjoyed. The rest of it (the celebration, the good-wishes, the stories) she tolerated for our sakes, because why else would Elsa go to a party in her honor, if not to make those of us throwing it feel better?
I could keep writing this letter for days. There is far, far too much good about this woman for any one statement to even begin to encompass it. Let me say one more thing, then quit before I short out the keyboard with tears.
Elsa’s entire life was about giving. Giving to others was her food and her joy. When it became clear that neither she nor her husband Bill were going to survive long enough to spend the money they’d carefully saved for retirement, she rejoiced that she’d be able to spend that money on her kids. Let me be perfectly clear about this: she didn’t say, “At least I’ll get to spend this money on my kids”, as if it were a consolation prize. She said, “Now I can spend this money on the kids!”, as if that’s what she’d have preferred to do anyways, and using it for herself had always been the poorer option. Her kids, both adopted and biological (and honestly, I still get confused as to which are which she loved them all so well) didn’t deserve her. None of us did. She was gift and treasure to everyone whose lives she shared.
Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t perfect. Saints never are. That woman was stubborn like you would not believe. She had little to no patience with selfishness or laziness. Like others who give so much of themselves away, I think she was often puzzled by the rest of us who haven’t yet learned to do that.
The title “Saint” gets a lot of use in the Episcopal Church. We recognize and honor the traditional saints (St. Francis is a favorite of ours, and of Elsa as well) of the Christian calendar. We refer to those Christians who have gone before us as saints in heaven. And most of the time, when preaching a sermon about one saint or another, I am at pains to explain how we are all saints in a way, or at least all saints-in-progress.
Elsa Woodard is a saint. In life she was a saint-in-progress, like most of us, except that she made a lot more progress than the majority of us ever do. Now she is a saint in truth. As a priest I’m supposed to be the subject matter expert on Christianity, but here is something which I know to be true: if I am ever half the Christian Elsa Woodard was, I will count my life a victory for all that is good in the world.
Goodbye Elsa. I doubt I ever quite lived up to the standard you set. I expect I’ll be remembering the example you were for many, many years. Your life was a glorious tribute to the God you loved. All of us are better people for your living, and wounded people for your dying. I will miss you. Thank you for being a part of my life.
This past Monday we went through IED (Improvised Explosive Device) training. Technically this was a field exercise, but compared to last week three air conditioned trailers and a scenic walk through a forest (on a path!) made for a pretty non-strenuous event. No, the challenge Monday morning wasn’t physical, but emotional.
IEDs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. There are a hundred ways to trigger one, and as many ways to build one. The person using an IED might be a hundred meters away at the end of wire, or a mile away at the other end of a cell phone. They might be driving an IED built into a car, or wearing one on their person. These devices are so varied, and often so primitive, that even though the U.S. Army has the best and most advanced bomb detecting technology in the world we often can’t find them until it is far too late.
So what do you do if your enemy’s tech is so primitive that your high tech can’t beat it? You deploy your own low tech. One of the most effective weapons in the fight against IEDs is something you may have in your own home.
I read a story this week about a two soldier unit deployed to Afghanistan: Corporal Cody Haliscak and Patrick L722. Corporal Haliscak has two legs, Patrick has four. I don’t know about your dog, but mine doesn’t much like thunder storms. She hides behind my chair whenever fireworks go off. Patrick is a dog of a different breed in more than one way. On one occasion, during a firefight, with bullets screaming by overhead and explosions going off all around, Corporal Haliscak noticed that Patrick was not only lying down beside him (as he was trained to do) but casually munching on grass to pass the time.
On May 9th Patrick and Haliscak were on a mission in the Helmand Provice of Afghanistan. A small IED had gone off earlier in the day, and a team of minesweepers and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) personnel were going out to investigate and make sure the area was secure. One of the hard lessons our Army has learned over the past years is that this statement is true: where there is one IED, there are two. And where there are two, there are probably more. A common technique of the Taliban is to place an IED where it will probably be noticed, or maybe a small IED that will only injure a single person. Then, when others come to help, another, better hidden and much larger IED is set off, killing the first responders.
The training of dog teams has been adjusted to reflect this truism, and Haliscak was concerned. Patrick had been amongst the first soldier dogs to be trained to work off leash, so Haliscak sent Patrick ahead and held the rest of the team back. Normally, when Patrick detected one of many scents that he had been trained to associate with explosives, he got very excited, wagging his tail and sniffing like mad before laying down in final response. This time he dispensed with the preliminaries and immediately lay down, quiet.
The explosion knocked Haliscak and the rest of the team, dozens of meters away, off their feet and deafened them. Thinking they were under attack, they prepared to return fire. When it became clear there was no ambush, Haliscak tried to run to Patrick, but the rest of the team held him back. They painstakingly cleared the way to the explosion site, where Haliscak had to use the magnification of his rifle’s scope to find Patrick’s body. Every single human member of the team went home safely that day.
The Department of Defense categorizes soldier dogs as “equipment”. The handlers and trainers of these exceptional animals know differently. Yet while they love their animals, and shed tears when they are wounded or killed in action—while they give them medals off their own chests (you can’t award medals to equipment), every one of them will trade the life of their beloved companions for the lives of the human beings they are there to protect. This is the kind of brutal calculation about the value of lives that war forces upon us.
This story, and far too many like it, are not part of the IED training course here at Ft. Jackson. They are written in a book titled, “Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes
”, by Maria Goodavage. I recommend it to you with a heavy heart, and suggest you keep a box of tissues handy (though, dogs being dogs, there are more than a few hilarious stories as well).
My class completed CIMT (Chaplain Initial Military Training) this week. We finished off Friday with a Beret donning ceremony, pictures of which you can find on my FaceBook page, though I’m in the back so you won’t see my face. On Monday we begin a three phase, nine week course that will focus less on military life in general and more on the role of chaplains in specific. We’ll still be blessed with 5am workouts each day, but there will be more classroom time, homework, and academics in the mix, and a bit less of jumping off things and crawling around. Honestly, after a few days of death-by-powerpoint I’ll probably miss crashing through the underbrush and wearing heavy body armor.
Until next week friends...
This past week was spent mostly in the field. On Wednesday and Thursday, while waiting for it to get dark so we could complete nighttime courses, we were trained and tested on various tasks that all soldiers are required to be proficient in. Part of this training/testing is on first aid procedures.
In the classroom, the week before, we were instructed on the finer points of the Combat Application Tourniquet (CAT). As part of that training, the sergeant presenting the material told the class that, while deployed to Iraq, not only would he carry a CAT in his Improved First Aid Kit (IFAK; the acronyms fly fast and furious around here), but four more on his person.
To prepare for an average day of work, I put on a black shirt with a tunnel sewn into the collar, then place a white plastic tab into that tunnel.
To prepare for an average day of work, this sergeant strapped a tourniquet around each arm and each leg so that, should one of his limbs be shot or blown off, he could tighten the CAT, cut off blood flow, and continue fighting without slowing down the rest of his team too much. Our instructor never had to pull tight one of his tourniquets, but others he fought with did.
The contrast between these two preparations is so stark it nearly defies imagination. Yet to imagine it is exactly why I’m here—not because I’m being asked to get shot at or risk IEDs (and what a comment it is that I don’t need to explain that acronym for you) on a daily basis, but because I’m being called to serve those who do.
This past week was the third of the four week course called CIMT (Chaplain Initial Military Training). The most physically challenging week we’ve had so far, we spent three days outdoors on various ranges. Monday we navigated “Victory Tower”, a course designed to challenge our balance, strength, and courage. We rappelled off the tower, swung across a gap, and navigated several rope bridges.
Though my Boy Scout career was short, I remember the three rope bridge well: you walk on one rope while holding another in each hand. The two rope bridge is a bit more challenging, with only one rope overhead to balance you while you walk on the other. I’d never even seen anyone navigate a one rope bridge. Seriously, if it’s only made up of one rope, isn’t calling it a bridge a bit of a stretch? Isn’t it just a rope? Along with my classmates, I lay down on top of the rope, hooked one boot over behind me and dangled one below, then pulled myself along head first. The Chaplain assigned to my platoon shouted encouragement from the ground far below, but I didn’t say a thing back, for fear the expelling of breath might undo the precarious balance I fought for.
Wednesday was land navigation, both day and night courses. The Army is very modern these days, and most vehicles and even soldiers are equipped with GPS units and other even more advanced tools of navigation. However, war tends to break things, so all soldiers are required to know how to navigate with map and compass, even Chaplains. The process is simple enough in theory: determine points on the map, calculate the angle between the points, hold compass such that you are walking along that angle, then go. Because this was Basic Land Navigation, “go” was pretty basic: walk in a straight line no matter what gets in your way, counting your paces to determine how far you’ve gone.
Even if the straight line goes through swampy ground and thick brush. And those two words? “Thick Brush”? I’m only using them because, in some vague and faded sense, they represent the human-hating wall of tangled, spiked foliage that stood before us. At one point, wedged between cords of ropy wooden restraints, I glanced around at the 18 inch field of view available to me and seriously considered developing claustrophobia.
For lunch I ate my very first MRE (Meals Ready to Eat). In the luck of the draw I received Meal #10: Chili Mac. It was pretty darn tasty. This is the secret of the MRE: they aren't that good, they're just generally better than what you were doing right before.
After dark we did the whole thing again because, if ramming your face into thickets of brush where animals are too smart to make a trail is fun during the day (Army Fun™), how much more fun must it be when you can’t see the thorn-bedecked vines coming at you? I returned to my room after 1 AM and nearly clogged the drain on my shower with sticks and leaves.
Thursday was all about combat maneuvers. First up was a sand field divided into four parts. First a three second sprint. Then, fall to your knees and elbows and “high crawl”. This term is deceptive, as it is actually not high at all, unless you compare it to the next section: the “low crawl”, in which you carve a divot into the sand with your head as you go along. Finally, flip onto your back and wiggle along flat to the ground under a roof of scenic barbed wire before rolling over a low wall and thumping to the ground on the other side. Fun!
Next we practiced moving under fire. Moving from wall to wrecked car to low embankment, two groups of two soldiers leap-frogged each other towards an enemy position, one group providing covering fire while the other group moved. Each group of two was made up of one chaplain and one chaplain assistant. This group of two is known as the Unit Ministry Team (UMT). Under most circumstances the chaplain assistant helps the chaplain to accomplish the religious mission of the UMT. However, under fire the chaplain assistant takes over. My job on this course was to keep my head down, hang on (literally) to my chaplain assistant who had his hands full of an M16 rifle, and dive onto the ground wherever he told me to. Our class of chaplains outnumbered the chaplain assistants by quite a bit, meaning that for each of us to complete the course our chaplain assistants had to go through multiple times. The young man I was paired up with was on his fifth time through and still managed to politely call me “sir” while ordering me around.
Thursday night we went through the Night Infiltration Course (NIC). Basically a very long crawl through sand and barbed wire while machine guns fired overhead, simulated artillery exploded all around, and occasional flares lit up the night. All I really remember is the boot I followed the whole time because I couldn’t see through my fogged up eye protection. I suppose I’ll never know whose boot it was.
It was a tough week, no doubt about that. Yet most of the time I couldn’t stop smiling. Even Thursday night, running on three hours sleep after the extremely long day before, with sand migrating into places where sand should never go, I found myself grinning on the ride home.
What a precious gift this is that I have been given. After nearly twelve years of professional ministry (my ordination anniversary is June 26th) I am presented with an opportunity to take what and who I am and use it in a way I never could have imagined. Here is a new challenge, a new community to serve, a new birth of faith and ministry. What is a little sand in your shorts compared to being reborn?
This is not a joke...
A Catholic Priest, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Buddhist Monk are standing in line for the bathroom.
Sorry, no punchline. That wasn’t a joke; that was Tuesday.
One of the biggest lessons we are learning this summer is a lesson about context. All one hundred and twenty-six of us already know something about being clergy. Some of us are still in seminary and are attending as Chaplain Candidates. Others of us are already accessioned Chaplains with years of experience in professional ministry. Yet all of us, even those with prior military experience, are learning how to do ministry in a very different context. On Friday our Sacred Communications (a.k.a. Homiletics) instructor said, “If you take nothing else away from these lessons, remember that context matters!”
So here’s some context:
- 68% of military personnel are under the age of 30.
- 85% of them are male.
- 40% of them are racial minorities.
- 83% of them have a High School education only
- 49% of them are married and 45% have children
- Pay for a soldier with four years of service and dependents is $31,000 per year.
For the above stats, on every single count, it is hard to imagine a congregation more different from your average Episcopal church.
Here are a couple more interesting figures:
- There are an estimated 20,000 faith groups/denominations in the U.S.A. No I did not accidentally add a zero to that number.
- Military I.D. tags (dog tags) include a line for “religious preference”. There are over 500 different faith groups/denominations for soldiers to choose from.
I’m not about to suggest that there is only one kind of Episcopalian, but I certainly couldn’t come up with five hundred of them.
The obvious lesson here is that an Episcopal parish is a vastly different congregation than a military one. Military diversity along some axis (race and faith groups) is far greater than anything the Episcopal church encompasses. Military uniformity in other respects (gender and age) is nothing like what we see in Episcopal churches.
I really did see a Priest, a Rabbi, and a Monk standing in line for the bathroom Tuesday afternoon. If you’d been standing next to me however, I doubt you’d have known what you were looking at, as they all looked pretty much the same in their ACUs (Army Combat Uniform). Eventually they’ll wear slightly different uniforms in that each will have a small patch on their right breast—a cross, a tablet, or a wheel—to indicate the faith tradition they represent. Yet mostly they’ll still look alike; mostly they’ll look just like me. Of course you probably would have noticed their skin. One of them was born in Thailand, one in Africa, and the other in the Bronx. Brown, Black, and White, but that’s just par for the course in today’s Army.
Monday and Tuesday we spent time in the field. On Monday we went through the Team Development Course. Talk about your summer camp flashbacks. In groups of ten or so we went through six different obstacles that required us to move ourselves and some item of importance from one point to another: over a wall, across a fallen bridge, through a broken culvert, or across a ravine on a one-rope bridge. My team failed some obstacles and beat others, creating a sense of common purpose and achievement that the course is designed for. I learned two things: first, you can spend a lot less time worrying about other peoples’ feelings facilitating a military small group than you can one from the College of Congregational Development
. Second, as far as I can tell, every unit in the U.S. military has dozens of two by eight boards of various lengths lying about.
Tuesday afternoon was spent training with gas masks, a lesson that moved from the classroom to the NBC (not National Broadcasting Company, but Nuclear/Biological/Chemical) range. The culminating practical exercise included three helpful lessons: first a demonstration that the masks really worked and would protect us. Second how to clear a mask (by removing it and replacing it, then resealing it while blowing as much of the gas as possible out the vent). The third lesson was mostly about what it feels like to not have a gas mask at all, as we removed them and got the full effect for awhile before exiting the chamber with leaking eyes, mouths, and noses. If you’d like to get a sense of the experience just take a large bottle of Tabasco, drink half, then pour the other half into your eyes and up your nose. Fun!
The rest of the week was spent in the classroom. We learned a lot of military first aid, a topic on which I’ll have more to say at a later date. We’re also spending a great deal of time learning “Drill and Ceremony” or D&C, which is marching. We have a D&C competition next Friday in which each platoon will strut their stuff in hopes of winning a ribbon for their platoon guidon. As I understand it, many folks at Fort Jackson enjoy watching the Chaplains march, in much the same way that folks often enjoy watching really bad movies and laughing at how terrible they are.
Next week includes “Victory Tower”, which I think is a high ropes course type of activity, as well as day and night land navigation (map & compass, no GPS allowed). Wednesday we’ll be doing our “infiltration” courses, both daylight and dark, where we learn to crawl under barbed wire with guns firing overhead. It’s going to be another very full week, so I’m spending the weekend trying to get ahead on the academic requirements by studying and prepping as much homework as possible.
It seems like Sundays should be the best days for me to check in here, so look for my post next week. I appreciate your comments and page views; they are encouraging. Thank you for following my journey and sharing your thoughts!
Pro Deo et Patria!