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Military Friendly: Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

21 Nov

The congregation that I am serving as intern pastor, celebrated and honored those who have served or are serving in the United States Armed Forces on Veterans Day. The worship service included the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a sermon about service and sacrifice, and a photograph slide show of our veterans. Additionally, the narthex (lobby) was adored with pictures of veterans that are connected to our community.

Obviously, the honoring of veterans and their families is evidence that the congregation is not military unfriendly. Yet, the Olympia (Washington) area has the reputation of being military unfriendly, which might be rooted in the history, the political climate, miscommunication, and/or misperceptions. Therefore, this Olympia congregation must acknowledge the reputation and be dedicated to voicing themselves as a welcoming, military-friendly community for veterans and their families in the area.

However, what is a military-friendly congregation? A military-friendly congregation is a faith community that publicly appreciates and acknowledges those are have served or are serving in the military. Please note, the definition does not require that individuals and/or the community is supportive of the United States foreign policy and/or the war(s).

A military-friendly congregation recognizes that veterans are a stressed community, whose volunteered for a difficult service. Their service requires a significant amount of sacrifice, which their family shares in.

Although the congregation I am serving is not military unfriendly, the congregation should be further dedicated to intentionally becoming a voiced military-friendly community. The rationale is firmly rooted in the identity (status) as a Reconciled in Christ (RIC) congregation, which boldly proclaims that all people are welcome. So, why the emphasis on military veterans and their families:

(1) the root of ministry is to share in the celebrations and the sufferings of all people, which would include the military veterans and their families

(2) the historical reputation of the (Olympia) area, which has caused military families to be marginalized

(3) the continued growth of Joint-Base Lewis McChord, which has and will continue to contribute to the growing military demographic.
Unfortunately, the faith communities in the United States of America have continued to embrace the Vietnam legacy, which is the manifestation of either ignoring or being hostile towards military veterans. This legacy has continued to manifest in the shocking, disappointing statistics of veteran homelessness and suicides:

1 in 4 homeless are military veterans  (USA Today, November 2007)

18 veterans commit suicide a day (Army Times, April 2010)

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) released the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the homelessness of veterans in September 2009 (via CNN):
131,000 estimated homeless veterans

13,100 estimated homeless female veterans (quicker growing than male counter-parts)

7,400 post-9/11 homeless veterans

740 post-9/11 homeless female veterans

12% of homeless veterans (younger than 34) are female

11.3% unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans
These statistics are the result of American society, including faith communities, not being crucial partners in the complex readjustment process of combat veterans, discharged veterans, retired veterans, and their families.

The combat veteran and their family have endured an odyssey that challenged, pushed them to their limit, and/or over-whelmed them. Clergy and faith communities have an opportunity to share in their readjustment into the civilian realm, consider seizing it with these suggestions:

1. Become a ‘Military-Friendly’ Congregation:
Jesus the Christ ministered to military, similarly the Christian church should as well.

The congregation may consider including the military in their prayers and the names of those serving (especially deployed) in the service bulletin. The congregation may also consider posting pictures of those serving (especially deployed) on a display board and projecting the pictures before and/or after the worship services.

The congregation should also consider supporting events (ex. Veterans Day) and organizations that support veterans and/or their families (ex. Fischer House, Wounded Warriors).

Our Olympia congregation has chosen to donate to the Fischer House, which is an organization that provides housing for the family while their service member is receiving medical treatment.
2. Intentionally Reach Out to Military Families:
The faith community should be intentional about the desire to share in and be present for military families, especially during a deployment.

Members of the congregation, including clergy, may consider periodical phone calls and/or meeting for coffee or a meal to offer support and a listening ear. Military families, especially if recently stationed in an area, may be lonely during this already challenging time.

Members of the congregation may consider being present for the military families during the deployment with practical gifts of service, such as assisting with the yard work, the maintenance of the vehicles, and offering child care.

Those who participate in children and youth ministries may consider providing consist out-reach to the children of those deployed. This provides a source of comfort for the child struggling with the separation, the spouse, and the service member.
3. Intentionally Reach Out to the Deployed Veteran:
The faith community should remain in contact with the deployed service member, in order to ensure him or her that they are loved, valued, and not forgotten.

The congregation may consider sending ‘snail’ mail to the deployed service member, which may include the church bulletin, the congregational newsletter, handwritten cards, and/or handwritten notes.

Additionally, the congregation may consider the ministries of the congregation alternating in the responsibility of sending cards, letters, and care packages to the deployed service member.
4. Welcome the Veteran Home:
If the service member agrees, publicly acknowledge their homecoming throughout the congregation, which may include the worship services, the bulletin, etc. This homecoming acknowledges the sacrifices of the family and affirms the service of the veteran.

Members of the congregation may extend an invitation to provide child care throughout the next several weeks. This invitation decreases the level of stress on the service member and the spouse during the earliest stages of readjustment. Additionally, it provides the service member and the spouse a little alone time.
5. Support the Veteran and Their Families Beyond the Homecoming:
The continued support of veterans and their families beyond the homecoming requires balance.

On the one hand, the homecoming celebration and support it often short-lived. Yet, the service member and their families are rebuilding their lives together, because the reality is that life will never be as it was before the experience of combat.

On the other hand, the veteran and their family need their space and should not be over-whelmed with the attention of the community.

Therefore, the faith community might consider ensuring that the family is aware of the pastoral presence of the congregation and the clergy. The congregation may consider providing one meal a week for the family during the weeks that follow the homecoming. The congregation can ease the tension of rebuilding the marriage by offering child care and/or paying for a couples retreat.

The clergy should be agents of grace and healing that are sensitive to the spiritual needs of the service member and their family. This includes being available to provide and/or refer counseling if the family is in need of it.
6. Listen to, Support, and Absolve the Veteran without Condemning:
As previously stated, faith communities and American society has inherited the Vietnam legacy. Our faith communities must and are able to serve the service member without compromising our moral standards. Our American faith communities are able to be a healing, safe haven for veterans and their families.

The veteran must be permitted a safe haven to share their troubling combat experience and engage in theological inquiry.

The veteran must be permitted a safe haven with a pastoral leader that offers a listening ear, a non-judgmental opportunity for confession, an extended heart of compassion, and a willingness to engage.
7. Be Alert for Signs of Distress:
The pastoral leadership has the inherent permission to inquire about and/or visit with the veteran and their families, which may include noting signs of distress. Through pastoral concern, faith communities offer the veteran an opportunity for healing, help, and hope.

Veterans of every generation have experienced Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), which has the ability to become Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) depending upon the severity and endurance of the symptoms. Please note, Hollywood and media have exploited the most severe, extreme, and rare manifestations of PTSD. However, the most common signs may include:

Depression
Hyper-Vigilance
Withdrawal
Inability to hold a Job
Anger Issues
Discomfort in Crowds

8. Be Prepared to Offer Wise Referrals:
The congregational/pastoral leadership should be in conversation with the local Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) about specialized services for veterans in the area.

In conclusion, a military friendly congregation extends their support of the military veterans and their families beyond the yellow ribbons and the patriotism. The true incarnation of love, respect, and grace in a community that encourages their continued personal faith formation is the most appreciated gift that a faith community has to offer the veterans and their families.

Additional Resources of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Additional Source:
“How Faith Communities Can Help Veterans and Their Families Readjust” adapted by VA Chaplain David Lundell from speakingoffaith.org – The Soul of War), via link above.
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