Wayne Henderson didn’t know how to help his son anymore.
That’s what the chief warrant officer 4 (U.S. Army, retired) told Christine Beady last year when he walked into the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, the graceful little shrine with the weathered steeple that sits in the quiet expanse of the Navy Yard.
Daniel Henderson’s addiction to opioids, his imprisonment, his fledgling recovery, what had led him to the drug in the first place — his father didn’t understand it.
Beady, the chapel’s executive director, has seen her own loved ones suffer in addiction. And so she sat and listened to his story. Then she told Wayne to send Daniel to the chapel, so she could listen to his.
For a time, Beady had struggled to keep the chapel doors open to anyone. Built in 1943, it spent its first life as a multidenominational place of worship for the generations of soldiers and sailors and their families stationed at the booming Navy Yard. After the yard was decommissioned in 1995, it sat neglected until 1999. Then, the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation made the chapel its new home.
The foundation honors the memories of the 672 soldiers, seamen, airmen, and civilians who died — and the 230 who made it out of the water — when a German torpedo slammed into the starboard hull of the USS Dorchester, a troop ship headed for Greenland in 1943. Four chaplains on the ship — a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and two Protestant ministers — gave up their life jackets, comforted as many men as they could, and went down with the ship.
The group named for them was dedicated to creating a space for connection among the survivors and the surviving families. To get them any help they needed.
When they moved into the chapel, Beady and the chapel board chairman, Capt. Louis Cavaliere, a retired Navy veteran of the Gulf War, oversaw the resurrection. The Navy Yard was coming back to life around them, and the chapel was a blank canvas.
Beady hung the plaques with the names of the Dorchester dead. Administrative assistant Michelle Nolfi gave tours to anyone who walked in. The three of them went about reviving the foundation’s veterans’ memorial and outreach programs. And people started coming back to the chapel.
Some came just to see the plaques on the wall. Some for benefits or help burying a veteran. Over the last two years, as the opioid crisis grew into a citywide catastrophe and a national epidemic, the men and women who called or came into the pews spoke of depression or homelessness or joblessness and, more and more, the addiction at the heart of it all.
“Now,” Cavaliere said, “it’s taking over.” Nationwide, veterans are twice as likely as the general population to die of an overdose. Beady, who lives in South Philadelphia and is the daughter of an Army veteran, knows her neighborhood has the second-highest overdose rate in the city. “I see it every day on the corners,” she said.
And the little chapel in the Navy Yard that for so long worked to meet the needs of the families of those lost at sea has remade itself to help those drifting in addiction.
The chapel is still a connecting space. Though they’re no longer worried about keeping the doors open, they still rely on donations, and they can’t yet offer treatment services themselves. So they match families and people in addiction and with other needs with treatment and counseling and shelter.
“The more we are doing this,” Cavaliere said, “the more people are showing up.”
Cavaliere’s uncle survived the Dorchester sinking and lived with the guilt of making it out without his best friend. But he doesn’t do this work because of his family history, he says. He does it because sailors don’t leave one another behind.
“This is the place to be when you feel you have nowhere else to go,” said Beady.
True to his word, Wayne Henderson sent his son over to the chapel after he talked to Beady last year. And true to her word, Beady listened. The chapel helped Daniel Henderson land a factory job, where he’s become a star employee. Now 29, he lives in Fishtown.
Beady asked Daniel to share his story at one of the opioid symposiums the chapel holds each year. His father was nervous about showing up. But Beady told him he could do it for his son. She told Wayne he needed to heal, too.
And so Wayne sat near the front, recording video. Crying. Listening. “It was the first time he heard the story from my side,” Daniel said.
Beady put her hand on Wayne’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“I never heard this,” he told her.
“This is what you need to hear,” she said.