Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Christmas in Djibouti

     Picking up from last week’s article about the Christmas lights we strung on the chapel at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Africa let me tell you of another situation that happened that long ago and far away Christmas.

     The year was 2003, and I had been sent to this small African nation to set up the command religious program for this newly established counter-terrorism base on a long-abandoned French military base.

     Early in December I was sitting in my office in the chapel when two senior enlisted Marines came in. They both worked in intelligence, but had also been very involved in the chapel program. Excitedly, they told me of a plan they had concocted. They announced that they wanted to put on a Christmas play! I smiled and said, “Great! What’s the play called?” “Well, we haven’t written it yet, sir.”  I continued smiling, somewhat bewildered. “Gentlemen,” I said, “It’s December 6th, and you’re telling me you want to put a Christmas play on by this Christmas? Just how do you propose to do this in a little more than two weeks?” They said they were going to write the play that very evening, and then recruit the actors for the various parts. I blinked a couple of times and gave my consent. I knew these two men well and believed they could, and would pull it off.

     Sure enough, the play was written, and the cast members brought together, and the rehearsals began. The play was a version of the Christmas story taken from portions of the Bible story found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I asked the guys where they were going to get costumes and props to fit with the times. They assured me they had that covered.

     The original plan was to schedule one performance for December 21st. However, the performance that evening was so well attended (Standing Room Only), that there was a request for an additional performance so those who missed it could still experience this amazing program. What sealed the deal to have another performance was the request from the commanding general of CJTF-HOA (Commander, Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa). He had to be out of the country for the first performance, and since he is an openly professing Christian, he wanted to see the play. So the play was performed two more nights, if memory serves me correctly, on December 24th and 26th. Everyone loved it, including the general, who asked me to have the play performed two more times. The actors were thrilled! These were all military people who were doing their military jobs while also rehearsing and learning their lines.

     The general’s plan was to have a special evening where he would invite a number of guests to his quarters on base for a relaxed evening of refreshments and entertainment. He invited the general of the French base and his wife, various other diplomats and dignitaries, along with embassy personnel from the capital, Djibouti City, which, by the way, included a number of Muslims (Did I mentioned that Djibouti is 94% Muslim?). He also invited the Bishop of Somalia and Djibouti. Because there were so many guests, he needed two performances. He would split the group of guests in half, having one group attend the performance while the other stayed and socialized with the general, and then vice versa. At the end of each performance the actors received a standing ovation!

After the second performance, the Bishop grabbed me out in front of the chapel and stated unequivocally,
“Chuck, you must let me have these people do a performance at the Catholic Church in the city!” I explained, “Bishop, that’s not my decision. See that Marine colonel over there? He’s the commanding officer of the base. We all belong to him. It’s his decision.” The colonel joined us and was immediately importuned by the bishop to have the performers bring the play to his church. The colonel smiled and said, “Anything you want, Bishop!”

     So now my crew of actors were to perform January 5th for the French expatriates at the Catholic Church in Djibouti City. That was also the day I was to fly home to California to rejoin my original command, I MEF, at Camp Pendleton. I missed the final performance, but was later told everything went wonderfully well.

     As for the costumes and props, all manner of clothing articles and objects were used. Roman soldiers wore combat boots and cut-off camouflaged shorts, cardboard shields and swords. Mary was played by a white, female, Navy nurse, and Joseph was a black, male, Marine! The Star of Bethlehem was made of cardboard wrapped in tin foil. Behind a tarpaulin curtain the Star was carried on the end of a stick across the fake stage. From the back of the chapel with the lights out, a large flashlight held by another Marine was focused on the Star as it moved. You had to have been there to appreciate the effort. It was all utterly fantastic! The story of our Savior was told in the most unique way I have ever witnessed.

     I am still amazed to this day at the way God worked in that whole event. So many lives were touched and, I believe, transformed. It was and remains a moment in my life when I clearly saw the hand of God.

     Merry Christmas!