Chaplains: Church must support returning soldiers
Feb. 20, 2007
NOTE: Photographs and video are available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Report By Kathy L. Gilbert*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Standing before a gathering of military chaplains, the Rev. Tom Carter offered the same "simple, kind words" that chaplains have said to thousands of warriors on the battlefield.
"In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!"
"I offered the life-giving service of communion while serving in Vietnam to many I knew would not return from war," said Carter, a former military chaplain and director of endorsement with the United Methodist Endorsing Agency, Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Chaplains in any war have offered the same, he added.
The Feb. 12-13 gathering of active and retired military chaplains marked the formation of a United Methodist task force working to teach the church to support and welcome service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They were invited by the endorsing agency and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Twenty-one people participated.
The United Methodist Endorsing Agency approves pastors to serve as chaplains in the military, hospitals, pastoral counseling and other extension ministries. Currently, 359 United Methodist pastors serve as military chaplains.
In Nashville, the chaplains called it a privilege to bring the word of Jesus Christ to young men and women serving the military during wartime. They said The United Methodist Church needs to honor the sacrifice of those serving.
"We all long for the day of peace and none more than the person who has to pull the trigger," said the Rev. Dale White, who was chaplain for a Marine unit in Fallujah, Iraq, for 14 months.
The Rev. Laura Bender, chaplain and a training manager at the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, R.I., said no soldier should have to go to war alone. "Who cares for those who (fight) on behalf of all of us?"
"How will the church respond to troops returning from war?" asked the Rev. Neal Christie, assistant general secretary of the Board of Church and Society, the denomination's social advocacy agency.
"Troops and their leadership inevitably are expected to return to extended families-and especially children, congregations, places of work, neighbors and other significant relationships-bearing the trauma of war in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Christie. "What will be the church's pragmatic, pastoral response to their homecoming when a return to life as normal is impossible?"
The task force discussed how the church can welcome, support and use the experiences of chaplains to educate congregations. It will develop an action plan to be implemented under the oversight of the Board of Church and Society and Endorsing Agency.
Back but not home
White described military chaplains as missionaries who bring the church's perspective and assurances of God's grace to military personnel.
"We have a unique way of presenting God to an audience of 18-to-22-year-olds," he said. "We bring them God, many of them for the first time."
The chaplains told agency staff that returning from war is a journey-and being back doesn't mean being home.
Bender and others began working on a liturgy for "returning warriors" that acknowledges the pain of the "trigger puller," cares for families and makes a place for soldiers when they return.
"Being acknowledged in worship means a lot," said the Rev. Jim Fogle-Miller, National Guard chaplain.
The gathering split into three groups to discuss difficult questions such as: How do we support our military while also opposing war? How can churches, districts and conferences provide opportunities for chaplains to share their experiences? What is the role of church leaders in lobbying state legislatures to adequately fund veteran assistance?
Voice of chaplain
The Board of Church and Society and other church organizations have been outspoken against the war in Iraq. But Christie said the church must demand public policies that support soldiers who exit Iraq and Afghanistan and need access to health care, a living wage, housing and other needs brought about by the violence of war.
"So to be in focused conversation with United Methodist chaplains deployed as soldiers, who advocate on the front line for their troops, who embody the social justice commitments including peace with justice, and are just back home, is both meaningful and necessary," he said.
Christie invited the chaplains to tell and share their stories.
"Politicians send women and men and their families to war," said Christie. "Chaplains make a choice to offer a ministry of presence in this hellish situation."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at: http://umns.umc.org