A World Away at Christmas

By Chaplain (Captain) Michael L. White

[This article has also been published in the online monthly, FaithWriters Magazine, for December 2005. Read the archived issue after December 2005, however. Merry Christmas!]

In December 1998, the U. S. Army assigned me to South Korea for a one year, unaccompanied tour of duty as battalion chaplain to an air defense unit. “Unaccompanied” means I was assigned without my family, so they remained in the United States.

As my flight stretched hour-by-hour into 17 long hours, I remember quite vividly thinking how very far from home I was going to be. This was my first, long-term separation from my family, and I was having a tough time emotionally. The worst part was that I had to report ten days before Christmas, making this the only Christmas we had ever spent apart. Granted, there are plenty of others in the military services who have missed numerous important occasions with their families, Christmas included, but this was my first. I was feeling quite disheartened about it and called upon the Lord for strength to sustain me for the long year ahead. As the unit’s chaplain, I was to be the resident spiritual leader and morale monitor, so it would not be a good example for me to demonstrate difficulty coping in front of the troops.

When Christmas Day came, I went into the dining facility for lunch with my new comrades and a group of young girls from the Isaac's Orphanage in Uijongbu (pronounced oy-WEE-jong-boo). The meal was almost like home, with plenty of turkey and all the trimmings. It was truly a sumptuous feast. The children were a wonderful delight, too, as each one advanced to accept with customary gratitude a gift provided by the Soldiers in my unit. Each would approach the presenter with hands outstretched together, with palms upward, and would then bow as the gift was placed in her small hands. A very polite “Kamsahamnida!” (pronounced kahm-sahm-nee-DA), which means “Thank you!”, accompanied each bow.

After a moment or two, one of the Soldiers noticed the children were not opening their presents, so, with the help of the interpreter, she urged them to begin opening them. As it turned out, this was another of the Korean rules of politeness. Recipients of gifts are not supposed to open their gifts in the presence of their givers, in case they dislike their gift, so as not to embarrass them with their reaction. Once the children had permission to open their presents immediately, however, it did not take them long to begin tearing off the wrapping paper and gleefully enjoying their gifts.

Of all the gifts that Christmas Day – the delicious meal and the joyful children, notwithstanding – the one that touched my heart more than anything was a Christmas card I received from a young couple in my previous assignment at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. It was the only piece of mail I’d received since my arrival, and it was the perfect topper to the day. The forethought they showed in mailing that card to my new address before I had even arrived there brought a lump to my throat. (It generally took about ten days for mail to travel to or from the U. S., but judging by the postmark, it took their card just seven days.) The fact that I received it in my hands on Christmas Day itself added even more to my astonishment.

When the mail clerk told me I had mail, I was genuinely surprised. I had been there only ten days, and I had forgotten that I had published the mailing address before I ever left home, so I didn’t think there had been time enough for anyone to write me. Amazingly, no one else, including my family, had thought to mail anything to me in advance.

That lump in my throat grew bigger as I held the card in my hands and read their personal note through tear-dimmed eyes, “…We pray your ministry in Korea brings you and all those to whom you minister, joy and peace. Have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful new year!” I was instantly reminded that God had neither forsaken nor forgotten me. He knew exactly where I was, even a world away from my family and my home at Christmas.

In my hour of great loneliness, and in a parallel scene reminiscent of the birth of Jesus, God caused a husband and his young, pregnant wife to send me a Christmas greeting that fulfilled the purest intent of Christmas: Love, Joy, Hope, and Peace. I took it as a sign of reassurance from God that, although I was unaccompanied by my family, I was accompanied by God Himself. He truly was Emmanuel (“God with us”) to me. I felt a sense of spiritual strength and encouragement come over me that I was now sure I could endure the hardship of separation over the coming year, and I was able to offer comfort to many others suffering the same pangs of loneliness. For that, I am eternally grateful, both to the couple and to God for His tender mercy and lovingkindness.