A Community Called Home

Ministries Creating a Dwelling Place for the Moral Injury of Our Veterans

by Elsa Peters Cook

Warrior’s Journey Home at First Congregational Church in Tallmadge, Ohio. Illustration by Rev. Elsa Anders Peters

“The trauma that warriors face can’t be healed by medication or even talk therapy,” explains the Rev. John Schluep. “It can only come through the gritty work of being in the trenches.”

With the increasing awareness that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, communities of faith are looking for new ways of being in the trenches with warriors from World War II through the Vietnam era and including our country’s most recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. When John started Warrior’s Journey Home at First Congregational Church in Tallmadge, Ohio, where he serves as senior pastor, veterans had no word to describe the trauma that we now know to be moral injury.

John oozes passion for this work as he quickly quotes from theologians like Joseph Campbell or Shelly Rambo. His approach to ministry with veterans is deeply rooted in his growing awareness of moral injury after a church member, a veteran, asked John to be in conversation with a friend who had been unable to find healing after 30 years of treatment in Veterans Affairs services. It’s a familiar story for faith communities in the trenches. Again and again, these faith communities have been reminded that it can’t only be the VA that helps. The community has to help.

This sense of calling is repeated by Cindy McDermott, the executive officer of RezVets, a ministry of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. As Cindy explains, these warriors need a chance to “come back home from the choices that they’ve had to make that were in conflict with their morality.” Cindy chokes up when she talks about the community that her church creates through mentoring, counseling, education and volunteering. She sees this work of healing moral injury as an educational process because so few know about moral injury. But, as she says, everyone has had to make a decision that has an impact on the soul. It’s hard to get to those stories—even in these ministries—because so much of this work in the trenches requires keeping confidences. Yet both Cindy and John know many of these stories need to be told.

Warrior’s Journey Home allows these stories to be told in sacred circles. It might take a veteran eight years of flirting with entering into one of these circles currently hosted at a number of United Church of Christ congregations throughout Ohio. But when that veteran enters into that space, John says, “the healing has already begun.” Each circle begins with a social time before the trained facilitator asks those in attendance if they would like to receive a smudging with sage or incense so that the prayers of their hearts might go to God, whatever they understand God to be. From this moment, the group moves from the East across the threshold from the temporal to the spiritual, led by the eldest combat veteran in attendance. They find seats before the talking stick is passed and the clearing begins. This is a time when each person seated in the circle has the opportunity to name aloud those things that might present him or her from being fully present. Having named these things, with full trust of the community, each person concludes by saying his or her name and “I’m clear.” The facilitator then shares a poem or a prayer to set the tone before the talking stick is returned to the center of the circle and the veterans are invited to share what is on their hearts.

One veteran in a circle shared how family and friends have been calling her crazy. They didn’t understand her experiences, and she was struggling to feel normal. When John got hold of the talking stick, he was quick to say to this woman, “You’re normal” because finding a way home for the warrior requires that the moral injury be normalized. The trained facilitator reads the energy in the room before closing out in prayer.

The Rev. Scott Hutchinson, who helped his congregation, St. Andrew’s United Church of Christ in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, launch Touchstone Veterans Outreach, is also interested in developing veteran healing circles. Touchstone gives these circles a different name, but the purpose is the same. It’s all about trying to create a place where the truth can be told. Scott believes that the classic spiritual practices can and should be used as resources for healing. These circles, as Scott understands it, provide a space for confession. A circle can be a host to that truth of the warriors, but it is incomplete without the repentance of civilians. They, too, must be engaged in confessing their own disengagement with where their warriors have been sent and why the warriors were there and even repent of their lack of care upon the warriors’ return home. These classic spiritual practices of confession and repentance, Scott says, “cross over the boundaries of just war theories, pacifism or even patriotism” to that place of healing.

RezVets offers a completely different model for healing to happen. This ministry includes Writer’s Place, which allows veterans and their families to meet monthly to share their stories. It began when Cindy called upon a woman whom she’d previously seen lead a writing workshop especially for veterans at the University of Iowa. Using the woman’s talents, RezVets created its first writing event called “The Things They Carried Home” after Tim O’Brien’s book by that title. Participants were invited to bring objects they carried home from war to be the center of their writing in the workshop.

Both RezVets and Warrior’s Journey Home focus their ministries on those who might not stumble into worship on Sunday morning, whereas Touchstone Veterans Outreach is constantly asking: what would it mean for a congregation to be a place of welcome for veterans? Matching both Cindy and John’s passion, Scott was quick to add to this question that veterans aren’t welcome in our society. And, though we might not want to admit it, our faith communities tend to mirror that trend. To that end, Touchstone Veterans Outreach hopes that the congregation of St. Andrew’s United Church of Christ can host the veteran healing circles but also be engaged in pastoral and congregational care that might make their church a place of true welcome. It is their hope not to silence the warriors’ stories but allow those stories to reveal our very humanity as God’s people. They don’t yet know how that will happen, but this hope guides the Veteran’s Ministry Team that supports the work of Touchstone Veterans Outreach.

Each of these three ministries is engaged in this construction. Without architectural plans to guide them, they are focusing their attention on the longing of each soul they encounter. In the spirit of the Psalms, each of these ministries is actively engaged in building a place for the sighs of each veteran to dwell. They dare to imagine such a community called home for these warriors. This shared work guides all that they do in their efforts to help warriors come back home from the trauma of war and destruction.

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