I spent 15 December 1998, through 9 December 1999, in the great Republic of South Korea, "Land of the Morning Calm", while my family lived in Ellen's Great-Aunt Lucille's home in Taylor, AL. Aunt Lucille had to leave it when she entered the nursing home just a few months before her death, which occurred shortly before we arrived there on 1 November. Although it was too small to accommodate all our belongings, we made the most of it. The best part of that year of separation was the close proximity Ellen, Amy, and Josh had to Ellen's family and our home church of Tabernacle United Methodist. They truly were a blessing to us.
One of the greatest blessings and Christmas presents God gave me in 1998 was the delivery of my hold baggage (all my personal effects, including my computer, easy chair, and bed linens) on Christmas Eve, when I was told not to expect it till the week after Christmas; but He didn't stop there. As wonderful as it was to have all my "creature comforts" finally with me, a second great blessing and present God gave me came the next day, Christmas Day, as I shared the noon meal with my new comrades and a few of the children from the local Isaac's Orphanage, which our unit helped sponsor. It was a warm Christmas greeting card from one of the exceptionally thoughtful families in my former unit at Ft. Sill, OK. How they had enough forethought to send me a Christmas card before I'd even arrived there was one of the most touching acts of kindness anyone has ever done for me. Several more cards arrived in the week following, and I appreciated them all. It truly brought tears to my eyes on that, the first Christmas I've ever spent apart from my dear family. After reading that one card I received on Christmas Day, I was reminded, enheartened, and encouraged that God knew where I was and would comfort my broken heart and sustain me through the most trying year of my life--and that He most certainly did.
During the remainder of my year in Korea, I stayed busy with chaplain business (i.e., counseling, troop visitation, preaching/teaching, etc.), but the most enjoyable part of my ministry there were the bi-monthly retreats I led to the Chaplains' Religious Retreat Center atop a little mountain in Yongsan (Seoul). The center was established shortly after the end of the Korean War and has been in continuous use ever since.
These retreats generally lasted three days, and I planned as much leisure time for relaxation, shopping, etc. into them as possible. We usually arrived just in time for lunch, then I would teach two 45-minute classes ("Stress Management" and "How to Be a Long Distance Lover"). Afterwards, I would relax and cut 'em loose until 2300 (11 pm.) to go shopping or just lounge around in their bunks watching free videos of their favorite movies. (There were more than 400 titles from which to choose!) On the second day, we would tour one of the historic sites, Kyung Buk Palace, and a cultural museum until lunch, then cut loose until 2300 again. On the third day, we would tour the War Memorial, which is a three story building housing an enormous collection of war artifacts and memorabilia from Korea's inception to the present, as well as historic descriptions in both the written word and in audio-visual formats. One could easily spend a week in there! Since the War Memorial is right next to Yongsan Main Post (the Eighth US Army HQ), we would eat lunch on our own there, then shop in the PX until time to return to home station, just in time to get off duty. Of course, I usually scheduled these events on a Wednesday through Friday so we could relax some more over the weekend, although I still always had to preach on Sunday. :-) In fact, I missed only two Sundays the whole year I was there, not counting the Sundays during my return to the States while I was on 27 days of mid-tour leave, which I also timed to coincide with the Alabama-West Florida United Methodist Annual Conference. The first Sunday I missed was due to flooding on a particularly rainy day at the height of the Monsoon Season, and the second was my last Sunday in country when I obtained permission to attend the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, reported to be the largest church in the world.
Christmas 1999, was a wonderful reunion with my family, since I had to depart just before Christmas in 1998. Indeed, looking forward to that happy reunion was what made it bearable for me to miss Christmas with them in 1998. It was just what I had dreamed about, too. We enjoyed our usual gift exchanges and tasty, home-cooked meals with family. I enjoyed 21 days of leave before signing into Post at Ft. Benning, GA, on 29 December 1999. I had already made a couple or three trips to Ft. Benning/Columbus to meet my Brigade Chaplain and Battalion Commander and to search for off-post housing, since the on-post housing wasn't large enough or in the school district of our choosing. I have an unusually accommodating commander who gave me ample time to resettle my family before I "hit the ground running" once I started my new job.
I serve a training battalion for infantry trainees. They do their basic training and infantry training all in one unit for 14 consecutive weeks. Ours is one of five battalions in the Infantry Training Brigade (ITB), and each battalion has five companies containing an average of 200 men. It's quite a new experience for me, though I got a taste of it at Ft. Sill, where I preached and assisted in worship for the artillery trainees there. However, I wasn't the unit chaplain for any of them as I am for the infantry trainees now. It's an entirely different style of ministry. Although it has its pluses, such as no threat of deployment, I prefer serving in a non-training battalion.
Apart from taking my turn on the post-wide funeral roster, staff duty chaplain roster, and seasonal worship events like Easter and Thanksgiving, the only other activity I've participated in was a special duty to deliver a short address at a small public observance of Veterans' Day in November 2000. It was reported on the local news, but I was far in the distance from any TV camera. My 15 minutes of fame were cut to 15 seconds. :-) Oh, and I also attended the new Army Suicide Prevention Training Program at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS, 12-17 November 2000. It was a very worthwhile event.
To bring you up-to-date on the rest of the family, Ellen is under the weather, too, right now, and she has been for about a month. Although it has slowed her down a bit (even slower than her usual snail-paced stride!), thanks to Home Shoppers Network, she is still managing to do her Christmas shopping with zeal and plastic. :-) Amy and Josh have had head colds, too, but not severe enough to keep them out of school. They were released for Christmas break just last Friday. We finally got them both into the same high school, Shaw H. S., for the autumn term this year. It's located about a mile from here, "as the crow flies". We had to let Amy finish her junior year at Northside Methodist Academy in Dothan to prevent her from losing valuable credits. Josh attended at Blackmon Road Jr. H. S. about two miles from here for the second half of his 8th grade year. One bit of exciting news is that Shaw H. S. just won the 4A State Championship last Friday night, 30 - 0 over Statesboro. Amy and Josh watched it from the stands in the intermittent rain and cold, while Ellen and I watched it on Georgia Public TV from our warm and comfortable positions stretched out on the sofa and love-seat, respectively. It was truly a fine achievement, since this was their first State Championship win. GO RAIDERS!
Well, this brings me to Christmas 2000, now. I've been down for a week with some strange kind of flu bug that produces congestion, severe weakness and dizziness, and a few mild muscle aches with fever, but thankfully no vomiting or diarrhea. Although I've just in the last couple of days returned from that "Valley of the Shadow", I'm ready to celebrate life, health, and peace with zeal. Christmas is less than a week away from the time of this writing, and I'm more in the spirit this year than I've been in a long time. I wonder what great blessing and present God will give me this Christmas? I guess you'll have to wait to find out in my next Chaplain Ministry Update, which is regretably long overdue. I've been so busy and preoccupied with all sorts of things that I've just not written any updates in the last year. I plan to do better in the coming year. If you're on email, start watching your in-box for more to come! Otherwise, you'll have to wait for next Christmas to find out. I hope you can stand the suspense! :-) Of course, you can also read this and lots of other stuff at my personal web site at http://www.geocities.com/mlwhite700 . Until next year, have a safe, joyous, peace-filled Christmas, and a happy New Year! In the infamous words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us everyone!"