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Becoming a Veteran-friendly Church: Pacifists can do this too

How can churches follow the Prince of Peace and yet minister to warriors? Military chaplains and veterans say that this dilemma keeps many congregations from including war concerns in worship or ministering to soldiers and families. A feature story exploring how churches can become veteran-friendly.

Chaplain John J. Morris was in parish ministry for 20 years before deploying to Iraq. So he understands what prevents most churches from taking the first step to reach out to military staff and families. “Foreign policy—73 percent of America opposes the war. It’s controversial to touch. Most pastors already have plenty of crises. So why pour gas on a fire?

“Churches have to figure out how to do nuanced theology. How do we balance the gospel of peace with people who have volunteered in a war that a lot of clergy don’t think meets just war criteria?

“Some clergy wrap themselves in the flag. Some clergy hate the flag. In the muddy middle are all those who don’t know what to do. But in every church—left, right, and center—there are family members directly affected by the war who need support,” he says.

And those military-affected people, who can’t use theological or political debates to hold war at arm’s length, “have got a hurricane roaring through their lives. We need to do something for them, whether we like the war or not,” he adds.

Morris and other chaplains say most congregations are missing the opportunity of a generation by failing to become “military-friendly churches.” They call on churches to care enough to educate themselves, plan worship that helps heal wounds of war, and offer practical support to military people and their families.

Different culture, different war

Educating yourself begins with understanding how military culture differs from civilian life. The whole point of basic training is to “take all the things that individualize you and collectivize you. Everyone gets the same haircut. Then you lose your first name, because you have your last name on your uniform,” says Herman Keizer Jr.

Keizer is the retired director of chaplaincy ministries for the Christian Reformed Church in North America and chairs National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces, the largest chaplaincy organization in the United States.

He says few civilians understand the “pride, sense of responsibility, and camaraderie that happens in a unit. It’s powerful. These young men and women, they don’t serve for nationalist purposes. Soldiers fight and die for people next to them.”

A veteran of combat in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq agrees. “In combat I have to depend on the 18-year-old behind me and take care of the guy in front of me,” says the vet, who asked to remain unnamed.

Compared to past wars, the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts depend far more heavily on the National Guard and Army or Marine Reserve forces. Many so-called “weekend warriors” signed up expecting to train part time for natural disasters or to serve on active but non-combat duty.

In recent years, many National Guard and Reserve personnel have been essentially drafted, had their tours of duty extended, and, through the “stop loss” policy, been forced to serve beyond their enlistment contract.

Hard to face

Soldiers and civilians in war zones deal with horrific situations. If you can stomach disturbing images, you may watch a one-minute video of a roadside bomb or graphic photo of IED (improvised explosive device) results. You, of course, have the luxury of choosing whether to look.

The unnamed veteran says, "We can't walk away from it. We've chosen to take an oath. As a soldier, my job is not to question, it's to follow orders. I live with—every day—the sights, smells, and sounds of war…and the decisions I had to make with duty rosters or flight plans that put soldiers in harm's way."

These split-second, life-changing decisions in war breed more dilemmas. “This is a no-win, no-lose kind of war. In my own heart, I ask, 'What are we doing?'

"A big portion of soldiers think everyone's forgotten them. All we want to do is be remembered. We've got family, friends, brothers, sisters. We don't want to die," the unnamed veteran says. He suggests watching the five-minute video “Remember Me.”

Big opportunity

Ask John J. Morris what churches lose out on by ignoring military ministry and he says it’s “loving their neighbor. We military members are an institutionalized population. Any time you leave an institution and reenter society, there’s an adaptation process. The best missiologists will tell you we’re most open to spiritual care and growth during that process of adaptation and reentering culture.”

Morris finds that most military families are open to and need ministry. “You have the opportunity to help a generation, not just a church. We have a million and a half combat veterans from our current wars. We’re going to make more veterans before this is over. If every veteran has three people in their family, that’s a lot of people.

“Every war has taught us that veterans have an inordinate impact on society. So, if the church doesn’t seize this opportunity, it’s missing a generation,” he says.

Worship that Heals Wounds of War

More of his high school classmates entered the military than went to college. About a third of families in his small congregation have sons in the military. He’s judged American Legion oratorical contests.

Yet Bill Graham, rector of St. Mary's Holly-Rushville (Episcopal) Church in Nebraska, has been a peace activist for nearly 40 years. “I joined the Episcopal Peace Fellowship in 1969 and had a lot of trouble with the way we treated those returning from Vietnam,” he says. Graham also works for international peace through Nebraskans for Peace, Lions Club International Peace Poster Contest, and The Third Order of the Society of St. Francis.

You might think that he’d say nothing about war and peace at St. Mary’s—to keep the peace. But he bases his ministry and worship on “accepting all members of our community because they are children of God. That acceptance is independent of his or her military involvement. We are bound together through the love we share in Christ,” Graham says.

Along with military chaplains and veterans, Graham is convinced that churches need to include military concerns in worship prayers, rituals, and songs. This worship proclamation means even more when paired with practical support for armed forces members and their families.

Pray often and together

“The way to deal with controversial issues is with openness, honesty, and flexibility. Reasonable people disagree. We need to be honest with our opinions and always open to the possibility that we are wrong. This is true whether we struggle over preserving life (at both ends), sexuality, or supporting a war,” Graham says.

Though he rarely addresses such topics from the pulpit, Graham did so one Memorial Day, sharing ideas from John J. Morris’ Christianity Today article on how to help veterans. His sermon included a story about St. Francis of Assisi “when confronted by his bishop concerning his order’s vow of absolute poverty. The bishop said to him, ‘I think your life is too hard, too rough. You don’t possess anything in this world.’ Francis’ reply was, ‘My Lord, if we had possessions, we would need weapons to defend them.’ ”

Graham ended that Memorial Day sermon with this: “The moral thing to do as Christians is to offer our full support to those who have volunteered to serve in our military.”

And, as happens nearly every Sunday at St. Mary’s, he and the congregation prayed for soldiers. The way they pray depends on the form of intercession used that week. Often, he or a parishioner names the group in general and others follow by giving names of soldiers. Graham prays daily for military members from his church, community, and extended family.

It’s important for congregations to celebrate with service members who get promoted and to pray for their families, according to Keizer. “When family members separate, it’s difficult. Coming back together is also difficult,” says Colonel Keizer.

Keizer urges congregations to pray for all affected by war. “The church transcends national boundaries. The church of Jesus Christ is not to be identified with any one country or any one political system. Identifying the United States as ‘the city on a hill’ is Zionist and a problem. Remember that we have to be prophetic to our country too,” he says.

Praying for all affected by war means setting your congregation’s needs in a global context. So pray for church members in the military and for people in Iraq. Intercede for families grieving tragic death and combat injuries among coalition forces…and among Iraqis, who bear even higher casualties of the Iraq war, because so many civilians have been disabled or killed. Life has become unbelievably hard for Iraqi Christians.

Be agents of grace

Living in a time of war takes tremendous toll on the warriors, as journalists from Bill Murphy Jr. to Bill Moyers and Maxine Hong Kingston have chronicled. Soldiers and chaplains may come home disillusioned about war and questioning God’s love.

Laura Bender, a Methodist and Navy chaplain, wrote a liturgy for blessing deploying service members and a healing liturgy for soldiers returning from war. She says the idea grew out of reading The Code of the Warrior by Naval Academy ethics instructor Shannon French.

“Shannon describes how various cultures have rituals of penance and cleansing for returning warriors, to signify their reentrance into civilized society and reacceptance of the rules that govern that society.

“It let the warriors know without question that although they had, for a time, been required to live by certain, more barbaric, rules, that time was over. It was now time to release that experience to the past,” says Bender, now assigned to the USS New York, the ship being built with steel from the World Trade Center.

Bender’s order of service for a soldier returning home acknowledges “a deeply personal cost for being a warrior that few of us will ever fully understand.” In it the soldier says to the congregation, “I have returned from war—help me continue my journey home.”

Bill Graham says, “I’m a firm believer in the benefits of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which the burden of past sin and failure is lifted and peace and hope restored.”

Share communion, psalms, and song

Celebrating communion also heals inner wounds of war. Keizer served communion at every service he conducted in Vietnam.

“The message of the sacrament is more powerful than any sermon I could preach. In the brokenness of combat, I could give soldiers the broken body of the resurrected Christ. In their hunger for comfort in losing friends and dry mouth brought on by fear, I offered the bread and the wine of something radically new. Christ said. ’I am the bread of life’ and ‘I will not drink of this cup again till I share it with you in the new age.’ That’s hope!” Keizer says.

He explains that just as chaplains bring the shalom of the Prince of Peace to the battlefield, churches can help returned soldiers find peace in how Jesus experienced what they have. Christ faced temptation in the wilderness. He felt afraid and forsaken near death.

“For a soldier angry at God for a friend’s death, I introduce him to the imprecatory psalms and say, ‘God is big enough to handle your anger,’ ” Keizer says.

Worship songs relevant to war—and set to familiar tunes—include “We Cannot Be Dismissive” and “Seeing Death and Desecration” by Andrew Pratt and “Save Us, Lord, from War’s Illusions” by F. Richard Garland.

Even without military references, worship that is welcoming can help. “Mostly, it’s just being in the body of Christ. That’s where the healing happens,” says an anonymous (by request) combat veteran.

Learn More

Listen to brief audio excerpts from an interview with Herman Keizer on July 22, 2008:

Listen to “The Soul of War,” a Speaking of Faith radio episode that featured John J. Morris, a National Guard chaplain. Read Morris’ Christianity Today article about reaching out to veterans.

See resources on planning worship in a time of war and PTSD and veterans and helped write a denominational report on war and peace

Laura Bender, a Navy chaplain member of the Trauma Research Group at Boston University School of Theology, wrote this helpful annotated bibliography while preparing a one-day workshop for civilian clergy who want to understand military issues. Use Bender’s war and peace exercise to clarify your thoughts.

Hear directly from veterans by watching The Ground Truth, an Iraq War documentary recommended by a combat veteran quoted above.

Check out Reformed Worship tips on flag use in churches and patriotism and politics in worship. Ever wonder how the Christian term glory became associated with the military? William Safire in New York Times explains the origin of the phrase “in harm’s way.” Military History Online has a similar explanation, though in a way that subtly justifies the current war.

Pray with discernment for Iraqi Christians, using these insights from Christians of Iraq, Ankawa, and an Armenian church leader.

Ministering to the Military in Our Midst,” a free download from Virginia Baptist Mission Board, is an excellent guide to understanding military life and ministry. If your church participates in the Alpha evangelism program, then you’ll appreciate this advice on how to adapt Alpha for the Military. Learn more about sending Bibles or care packages to soldiers and caring for those left behind.

Educate yourself on how PTSD affects veterans of different wars. PTSD among the 190,000 women veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan is often related to being sexually assaulted or harassed.

Watch these online videos about issues returning National Guard veterans face. An excellent Los Angeles Times story reports on how Marines resonate with ancient Greek plays.

Browse related stories on biblical lament in worship, healing in worship and peace and justice.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get members talking:

  • Which people in your congregation or church neighborhood are directly affected by military service? If you’re not sure who they are, how will you find them?
  • On John J. Morris’ scale—of “wrapped in the flag,” “hate the flag,” or “muddy middle”—where does your church stand on addressing military concerns in worship or reaching out to those affected by war? How comfortable are you with this stance?
  • Which first steps is your congregation especially equipped to take in ministering to soldiers and their families? Who might you partner with in developing or deepening this ministry?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to begin including war concerns in worship or ministering to people affected by military service and war? 

  • What has worked best—or not worked well—in your efforts to include war concerns in worship? As you compare these observations with peers in your region or denomination, what common themes emerge?
  • If you’ve contacted or visited other congregations to learn about their military outreach, what did you learn? If you developed a template to help evaluate those visits and apply your findings, would you share that with us?
  • Have you offered regular community meals and discussions based on books or videos relevant to military concerns? Did it work best to mix or separate military people and civilians?

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