Loyalty is a commodity which seems to be in short supply these days, even in Christian circles. It’s such a pity because Christians are supposed to be marching to the same beat in ‘the Lords army’.
During World War 2 my father came to experience real loyalty from his fellow inmates in the POW camp outside the city of Danzig in Poland where he was held for five years. Although most of the prisoners had no Christian faith, many had a deep seated need for spiritual comfort in their adverse circumstances.
Describing himself as ‘a nominal Christian’ at the outset of the war, the abnormal situation of captivity drove my father to take the advice of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him”.
As he began to pray and read his Bible, the Lord answered his prayers in miraculous and practical ways. Eventually he began to preach, and from April 20th 1941 until February16th 1945, my father faithfully prepared and delivered a Gospel message in what became known as the ‘Sunday half hour’ to the men of his billet.
In his retrospective, ‘We’ve Been a Long Time Coming Boys’, he relates two incidents of answered prayer and that vital commodity of comradely loyalty which enabled obstacles to the Sunday evening services to be overcome.
“Some days later, Alex Espie reminded me of the horrific experience we had outside St Valery the previous year and of how, behind the old stone dyke, he had crawled in my direction hoping for better cover from the enemy's fire. “I frankly admit I was terrified that day. I was sure we were going to be killed and I was not ready to die. Then I looked at you,” he went on “and you did not seem to be scared at all. Your seeming calm puzzled me. At the time I could not tell why. However, now I know the answer. It came from the Psalm you read to us on Sunday. Now I realise someone was with you that day all right, but I was there all alone.” He referred to Psalm 23.
There were two incidents which I feel worth recording, regarding those Sunday night efforts of mine. Both had a touch of the ridiculous and also of the wonderful, when you pause to consider how the Good Shepherd can look after his sheep.
The first hiccup arose when we were issued with postcards to send a weekly message to our friends at home. We were allowed three of these cards per month plus one single-sheet letter on which to write our correspondence. Without exception, all my mail was addressed to my parents in Aberlour Scotland. After I had preached my first sermon, I was so excited about it, I had to let off steam on one of these cards. Of course, I did not count on the German censor's office staff. Naturally, these cards were to pass through their hands. The first card went through all right although I had written on it, “Spoke to men for first time. Read Ps. 23 and Jn. 10”. No doubt this jargon must have seemed strange to the ignorant German mind, but I got away with it without comment the first time. But then, each week, there were more mysterious writings — Rom. 8 (Romans, Chapter 8) and Eph. 2 (Ephesians, Chapter 2) and so on.
Eventually, some keen mind in the censor's office decided that there was a spy in the Quadendorf Camp and these were secret messages in code. Such treachery must be nipped in the bud. Consequently, I was put on the carpet and asked to explain what was going on. I'm not exactly sure who grilled me about the matter. It was certainly a guy from the censor's brigade. After many tedious explanations, I was able to convince him that these secret codes were merely texts from the Bible. They were the references I used in our Sunday Half-hour each week. Can you imagine what a fool he must have felt when he made his report to his office on his spy-catching affair. I feel sure he must have decided he would wreak his revenge on me for this stupid mistake. Some days later I was summoned to our guards' office. There, I was handed an official-looking type-written letter in someone's best English. In it were laid out the Prison Camp Rules. All public meetings were strictly verboten (forbidden) unless notice was given beforehand. Thereafter, an interpreter must attend at all times to hear what was likely to be said. After all, sedition, insurrections or even an escape might well be hatched up or planned.
Unfortunately at that time, we had a guard who enjoyed causing trouble. We called him 'Chinny' because he seemed to be born without a chin. I sometimes wondered if his ugly face may have prompted him to dish out the rotten tricks he got up to, whenever opportunity came his way. Now must have seemed to be a good chance for him to stamp out the first signs of rebellion in our ranks. Sunday Night Assemblies must cease forthwith. This, he made abundantly clear. Frankly, I did not know what to do. I retreated to our billet, tail between legs, and decided to consult the other men. Their decision was swift and completely unanimous. “Carry on, Schuster,” they said, “and we will all stand by you.” Mind you, I did not know what was to be involved in standing by me, but I did two things. I prepared as usual and then I prayed.
Sunday evening came and I had started my sermon and was getting into top gear when the billet door was flung open. There, framed in the doorway, face livid, arms akimbo, stood Chinny. For a second, I hesitated. The atmosphere was electric. Suddenly, the silence was broken by big Joe Wathen. He said quietly but firmly, just the two vital words, “Carry on”. Staring the guard straight in the eye, by the grace of God, I did as Joe said. I carried on. Chinny tried to stare me out, then wheeled on his heel, and slammed the billet door. The victory was ours. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty”. Chinny never interfered on a Sunday night again.
The second incident I want to record about our Sunday Church Services was a different kettle of fish, as we Scots would say. It really began with the arrival at our camp of another new boy, Tommy Danes, from Glasgow. Tommy claimed to be a welder, but I doubt if he knew much about the job. He also aspired to being a comedian, but his repertoire was pretty limited and his jokes soon began to wear a bit thin. As a matter of fact, Tommy never really fitted in with the rest of the boys. One day he decided he had had enough of our camp and disappeared during the morning stint of work. At midday soup time Tommy was missing and we were all locked in our hut while a search was quickly organised. Later that day, the fugitive returned under escort. I don't think the German High Command was much troubled by this escapade, if we might call it that. Tommy had lain in a ditch until a convoy of German trucks drew up on the main road. They were on their way to the Russian front and had stopped to get a meal. With all their men dispersed to their field kitchen, Tommy emerged from his hiding-place. With hands held high and “camarading” all the way, he approached the only soldier left with the wagons. The German looked him up and down with disdain and told him to come back when the Officers had finished their meal. Thus a heroic attempt at a Colditz-type adventure came to a halt and Tommy was returned to our headquarters camp.
Alas, we poor souls had to bear the brunt of our guard's wrath. After all, our Unteroffizier, Big Jim as we called him, decided that if he was in the black books with his superiors, he would take it out on all of us. Consequently, he decided on two strategies. The first was to burst into our billet in the middle of the night and shine his torch on our blissfully-sleeping faces. That could really make you jump. His second ploy, however, was the one which caused me not a little anxiety. He issued orders that when work was finished for the day, all trousers must be handed in to his office immediately. To my annoyance, this was also to include a Sunday. Here was a tricky situation for me. I could not imagine myself holding forth from the Bible in my shirt-tails. What to do? Clearly I must pray about this, and I did, several times a day.
Saturday came and I felt like calling off my Sunday sermon. However, unknown to me, the Lord had other ideas. After work that evening, having collected, counted and stacked all our trousers, Big Jim wandered back into our billet and threw down a Red Cross clothing parcel. As it was not for me, I retired to my upstairs bunk and, as usual, lay down on my bed to read. Presently, the lad who had received his parcel pulled my elbow and held something up. Believe me, I had never seen in any P.O.W. Camp, what he held in his hand. It was a pair of brand-new pyjamas. “Would you wear these please,” he asked, “and have our Sunday Half-hour tomorrow night as planned?” Imagine my thoughts — surprise and shame. Here was I praying for help, hardly believing that I had been heard and in this dramatic way, help arrived. That Sunday evening, I read from my Bible and spoke to the men — I, wearing Stan's pyjama trousers, and the congregation in their shirt-tails. I doubt if many preachers could claim to have had such a privilege as I had that Sunday night. Fortunately, by the next week-end Big Jim had cooled down somewhat and we were allowed to retain our trousers overnight again.”
Few preachers can have ministered in such circumstances. It speaks volumes for the loyalty of my father’s fellow prisoners that they stood up for him in the cause of Christ when needed, even although their faith was weak, or in some cases non-existent.
We should pray that such courage and true loyalty once again becomes the hallmark of believers in our fellowships and churches.
‘We’ve Been A Long Time Coming Boys’ by Charles Morrison, Published by Albyn Press ISBN 0284 98840 5