Interview with James Hamlett for DPF NewsNotes
In 1966, James Hamlett graduated from Wichita High School North in Kansas. He served his last day as the President of the Pension Fund of the Christian Church on August 31, 2016, after serving for nearly 46 years in various ministries within the Christian Church including the United Christian Missionary Society, Board of Church Extension and the Pension Fund. Here we share the story of how that journey of service began.
DPF: For those who didn’t experience it personally, can you explain what it was like to be a young man in the United States when there was an active draft?
JH: The draft was reinstituted in 1970 with a lottery in February of that year based upon year, month and date of birth. I was included in that first lottery. There was great turmoil on college campuses about the Viet Nam War in general and especially about the lottery. Those selected, if not otherwise deferred, were confronted with a series of potentially life-changing questions. Would one be willing to serve if called? Would one enlist in a preferred service so as to have some input in how one served? Would one go underground or flee, perhaps to Canada? What about resistance to serving and risk being sent to prison? Would one oppose on religious grounds as a conscientious objector? And if granted CO status, in what form of alternative service would one fulfill one’s two-year obligation, if called? Those selected in the lottery had to face these questions. Those not selected were off the hook. The difference in treatment only enhanced the divisiveness around the war.
DPF: How did you come to the decision to register as a Conscientious Objector? Who influenced your choice? Were there particular people or communities who helped you make this decision?
JH: As a young person I was active my church youth group, in summer church camp, district and regional youth activities. I had seriously considered the possibility of attending a church related college and preparing for ministry. The Chi Rho and CYF groups in my church were encouraged to engage in serious discussions around faith formation and social issues and how they might inform action. I had been taught by my parents to think for myself, to determine for myself what I believe to be right and to be prepared to stand against peer pressure if need be. That nurturing continued as I entered college. As the Viet Nam War expanded, I came to the belief that our country’s involvement was wrong. And as I questioned myself about why, I came to understand that I believed all killing of human life to be wrong and therefore could not condone nor participate. Of course, none of that would really have mattered if my lottery number were high enough. After all, each person in the lottery had about a 50% chance of not being called. As it turned out, my birth date was the 17th date called. I had a decision to make. My decision, against the advice of family and some friends, was to declare as a CO and then work at having some influence in where and how I might serve my two-year commitment in Alternative Service.
DPF: What happened once you made the decision? What were you required to do, and how did the Christian Church become involved?
JH: Once I made my decision I contacted the pastors at my church. They gave me their support and put me in touch with a community ministry specializing in Conscientious Objectors who advised as to process and requirements. The community ministry, lead by a Disciples pastor, also counseled on subsequent steps for appeal in the event that the CO status was denied. My particular draft board had a reputation for denying such requests. I prepared the required forms, offered character advocates and prepared my personal statement regarding what I believed and why I was conscientiously opposed to serving as a military combatant. The community ministry opened a network of resources and support for those who sought CO status. After filing the declaration, I waited expecting to be denied and preparing to take further steps on appeal. But for whatever reason, my request was approved. My pastors and the community minister then assisted in providing information about where one might serve. This was a broad list of hospitals, social service organizations, and one United Christian Missionary Society. I contacted a number of these organizations. I subsequently received a letter from the UCMS saying that they had no real opening, but if I would come and be willing to start by serving in their mailroom, they would see what they might have for me that would fit with my education and skills. So as a leap of faith, I moved to Indianapolis to start Alternative Service in the UCMS mail room, intending to return to my childhood home after two years.
DPF: How do you think the decisions you made at that point in your life affected the trajectory of the rest of your life? Would you do it again?
JH: Had I taken another path, I would not have had the opportunity to serve at UCMS, to become acquainted and be nurtured by some of the great saints of this church. I likely might have become an attorney and served a career in a secular environment. Certainly service at Board of Church Extension (now Disciples Church Extension) and at Pension Fund would not have developed. At each point along my career, I have had decision points, which have opened doors that have blessed me and my family beyond measure. Would I do it again? I would like to think so. Being clear about one’s faith positions and being willing to stand for those positions, even if standing alone was the real issue. The draft was simply the facilitator for crystallization and action.
DPF: In these days when an active draft is a distant memory, but politicians are discussing requiring women to register alongside men, what is your advice for youth who are facing their 18th birthdays and the requirement to register for Selective Service, and for their parents, youth leaders or pastors?
JH: Of course registration was also required when I turned 18. As a proud citizen of this great country I chose not to resist the requirement of registration. I also was prepared to fulfill a service requirement. But, I chose to resist the role of combatant and sought to find a way to serve in a manner that might be beneficial to my country and humankind. Some might take a similar position. Others, of course, may follow a different path. As I think back, I have great admiration for those persons who made a decision and stood by it, whether it was military service, or alternative service. However, I think was unfortunate that those persons who had high lottery numbers, never were required to confront serving this great country. So I actually could support universal registration and a universal two-year commitment to serving the country either through military service or well created alternative service opportunities supporting health, education, social justice, etc. It might cause more people to truly come to grips with their faith positions. So if I were to give advice, it would be this. Seek opportunities that will test and provide clarity to your faith and what you believe you are called to do. Be firm in your faith, willing to stand against the tide of opinion or peer pressure. Be open to God’s leading as God opens doors for service consistent with your faith. And be confident that you will find blessing in your decisions. It can be life changing.
DPF: Thanks so much for sharing your story with us! Blessings in your retirement, Jim!