This isn’t a typical post for me. I was recently asked to reflect on and answer the question:
“Why should UU congregations intentionally reach out to active military personnel, veterans, and their families?”
It took some time, some reflection, and a reminder of my commitment to practice being vulnerable in public, but here it is.
I began my service in the US Army when I was 20 years old. I was 3000 miles away from my family, friends and the only community I had ever known. One of the first things you learn in Basic Training, in fact your best chance for surviving the training at all, is to do what you are told, keep your opinions to yourself, and definitely do not ask any questions or challenge authority. I might not have liked it, but I certainly understood it, and I played my part in the overall system.
I was assigned to a unit with a relatively low number of women. There were 4 of us, and maybe 10 other women in units nearby. Our building was in the midst of an infantry battalion, made up entirely of men. We worked in an environment where soldiers felt free to stare and make lewd, unprofessional comments. We were forced to eat our meals in a place where eating a banana became dirty, and where a woman had been recently raped. We lived in a place where soldiers would look through our windows with binoculars, where we had to shower behind unlocked doors, and where anyone could jimmy the lock on your room with a credit card or ID. We served knowing that if we didn’t exceed all expectations, we were proving that women had no place in the military. Sexual harassment was the unspeakable norm. Silence was the expected course of action.
During my time serving in the military, I did not have control over many aspects of my life. The Army told me what to eat, what to wear, where to live, and what my work was. There was no room for interpretation. When I was threatened with disciplinary action for having a rainbow bumper sticker on my car, there was little I could do. My orders were cut and dry. As a soldier, I executed my orders flawlessly and without public complaint.
But the military had no control over my faith. The faith-based opportunities on base, or in the field, were minimal, and were not appealing to me. I did not want to recite passages from the Bible. I needed more than that. I needed a place where I could ask big questions, and more importantly where it was safe for me to do so.
It took some effort on my part, but I found the local UU congregation, not too far from the military base where I was stationed. The congregation was such a breathe of fresh air. Here were a group of passionate people, living their lives faithfully, authentically, and asking those big questions with each other. I felt held and safe when sharing deep sorrows and profound joys. It was the only hour of my week when I could be my true, and whole self. It was the only place where I dared be vulnerable. It was the only time anyone called me by my first name.
The congregation was life saving for me. It was through my connection with the congregations that I reclaimed my identity, remembered who I was at my core, and was able to remain true to myself.f
The message was life changing for me. I copied passages from the hymnal every Sunday so that I could reflect on those words throughout the week. The intensity of my time spent in active duty, caused me more spiritual discernment than perhaps at any other time of my life.
UU congregations must reach out to military personnel and their families. Our congregations may be the only place where they can safely be who they are, ask questions, mourn losses, and speak their truths.
I first publically identified as a veteran, years after leaving the military, and during a Veteran’s Day worship service at my home congregation. I was immediately struck by one woman, who approached me after the service. She was a well-known, long time member of the congregation. Her high school aged son was intending to join the Marines. She did not know what to do. She did not feel like she could talk about it in her congregation. As a peace loving people, she was sure they would not understand. She did not understand why her son was making this choice, and was torn between her work for peace, and her support of her son’s choices.
Our UU congregations need to be supportive of our members, and their friends and family who choose to serve in the military. This is our best chance at changing a culture, by inundating it with our people who bring tolerance, respect, value humanity, the environment, and work for peace and justice. Talking only to each other in the comfort of our sanctuaries does not challenge militarism, does not respect the dignity and humanity of those who choose to serve, it does not move us toward beloved community. I left the military before being promoted to a position of leadership. The UU leader I am today would be strong enough, and prepared to lead the charge for deep change. My commitment to Unitarian Universalism, and all of the amazing and committed leaders I have learned from and worked with over the years are the ones who have prepared me well for this type of leadership. We have a role to play in this, as people of faith, of welcoming congregations, and as Unitarian Universalists working to heal a fragile and broken world.