In my first full year in my first call congregation, my husband deployed for his second Army tour to Iraq. (Tour- what a phrase! As though it was a casual jaunt through the desert.) I was pregnant with our first child and we knew he was going to miss the birth. I wrote a newsletter article asking people to have me over for dinner. We were still, as pastor and congregation, in a very new phase. This phase was not aided by the reality that most of the people in the congregation did not have direct experience with deployment, particularly for long time periods into a combat zone. Over the five months until the baby was born, I received two dinner invitations.
I wish that the congregation had Zachary Moon’s book Coming Home: Ministry that Matters with Veterans and Military Families. This book is written to be used as a book study or reflection aid in a congregation. The book gently offers tools for how to reflect on one’s own (or one’s tradition’s) stance with regard to war and how that does or does not influence interaction with veterans and military families.
Often congregations that have done extensive work around how to be open to all people flounder a little when it comes to veterans. Not everyone has moral injury or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Among those who do, not everyone deals in the same way. My spouse needs a lot of quiet time doing projects of his own choosing after returning. Another member of my family drank like he needed to drown something. Another veteran with whom I communicate is in prison because of an inability to control his reaction in an inopportune moment.
“Thank you for your service” isn’t enough, notes Moon, to cover the realities of what it means to be a human being with military service experience, wisdom and understanding gained therefrom, and a different lens through which to perceive scriptures, prayers, and God. He notes from his own experience as a commissioned military chaplain that spiritual communities need to learn how to ask veterans about their service without automatically assuming victimhood or false bravado. Servicemen and women have their own reactions and experiences. A willingness to listen, setting aside judgments, and asking questions that allow for vulnerability and respect- rather than morbid curiosity- are part of making a true sanctuary.
Some congregations have special prayers or actions when a member is going off to a deployment. We rarely have the same action, other than a prayer of gratitude, when the person returns. What would it look like to welcome a soldier/sailor/airman/Marine back home with a specialized Affirmation of Baptism, with the congregation affirming their presence and support. What would it be like to say, “I’d like to tell you some of what happened to me while you were gone and I’d like to hear about what happened to you.”
Moon’s book is a handy tool for especially for congregations near military bases and posts. Yet, it need not be limited to those. Veterans are everywhere- in all kinds of places, with all kinds of skill, and in all areas of faith practice. Congregations need to have conversations about their welcome to servicemen and women beyond Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day and/or Memorial Day. As the wife of a veteran, the sister of a veteran, the friend of several, and the pastor to a few, I commend this book to you and to your congregation. We have a very short Epiphany coming. This would make an excellent January discussion tool as we prepare for Transfiguration and Lenten disciplines.
Our scripture is full of soldiers, commanders, sailors, and their families. The veterans among us see things in those stories that others miss. Our congregations are full of people with vast life experience. It is well and good to be open to how the experience of military service can and should contribute to the life of the church.