As the war in Iraq comes to a close at the end of 2011, ReadTheSpirit has heard from clergy nationwide struggling to discern their ministry toward military veterans. For millions of American churchgoers, there is no conflict at all. As a nation, we are proud of men and women who agree to serve our country. However, for Christians with a strong commitment to peacemaking, reaching out to military veterans can feel like glorifying war rather than preaching a message of peace. Beyond that challenge, surveys show that most Americans are not interested in news about our global conflicts or our veterans. A huge number of war-scarred men and women are being ignored by our nation’s leadership—and our religious communities, as well.
ReadTheSpirit invited a nationally known peace activist—the Rev. Rod Reinhart, founder of the World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation—to write about how he has moved from decades as an anti-war activist to new ministries working with veterans. Was this a leap? As you will read, Rod says: Not really.
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Why I Work for Peace
Why I Work with Veterans
By the Rev. Rod Reinhart
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm recently asked how long-time peace activists could devote so much time to caring for hospitalized and homeless veterans. He wanted to know how people who spent so many years opposing war could get so involved with the military and the VA hospitals trying to help veterans facing dire challenges get their lives back on track.
For Christians, the answer is simple, but our paths toward that answer are varied. These recent wars have cost our country far more in treasure and lives than any American could have imagined. We are not much more secure than we were ten years ago. Many of us had deep doubts before the war started. I stood among the activists who opposed war. Now, a decade later as the war in Iraq is coming to an end in late 2011, many more Americans now have deep doubts about what our faith tells us concerning war. Over the past week, National Public Radio opened its call-in lines concerning the U.S. departure from Iraq and a tidal wave of grassroots voices expressed a widespread disillusionment with this conflict.
This is a good time for those of us in the peace movement—and the many Americans who initially supported these wars—to pause and talk. But, we have to remember: A decade after these conflicts began, we are not alone. There’s a huge third group of Americans who must concern us: thousands and thousands of veterans and their families.
Of course, most veterans will return home unwounded. They will re-enter civilian life with great courage and success. But that will not be the story for all veterans. Vast numbers of American men and women have been deeply wounded by these wars. We recognize that our nation must make every effort to care for the soldiers who fight in wars. Our soldiers did not start these wars. They did not ask to be physically and emotionally wounded. The veterans of these wars, especially the wounded, handicapped and the homeless vets, are the most visible war victims of our wars—and we, as peace activists, like all other Americans, have an obligation to care for them.
HEARING THE CHRISTIAN MESSAGE WITH FRESH EARS
At the very center of our Christian faith, there is the deep realization that Jesus Christ suffered on our behalf. Isaiah prophesied that he would bear our grief and carry our sorrow. If you attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah in this holiday season, you will hear those famous phrases echo once again. The Apostle Paul tells us that through his suffering and death we are forgiven and made whole. There is a relationship between Christ’s redemptive suffering, and the suffering of our wounded soldiers.
In spite of our anxieties and doubts about the wars, all of us realize that our soldiers have been fighting and suffering on our behalf. Many of them have borne deep and terrible wounds. Many of them are suffering profound emotional trauma. Many of them are living in the anguish of poverty and homelessness.
Their suffering may not redeem us. We may not be healed by their wounds, but they received these wounds for us. We are certainly called to do what we can to heal their wounds. We are called to help them find a new life, new jobs, and new hope after they return from the war.
HOW WE BEGAN OUR MINISTRY WITH VETERANS
My two Episcopal congregations just south of Chicago believe that caring for veterans, and their families, is a vital part of our ministry. St. Clement’s, the church in Harvey Illinois, feeds many veterans every month through our weekly pantry program. St. Joseph/St. Aidan, the church in Blue Island, runs a veterans-winter-survival-gear drive every Christmas. The church works to make sure that homeless veterans have the warm coats and supplies they need to survive in Chicago’s bitter winter cold. This year, the families of veterans and congregations all across Chicago gave more than 300 large bags of coats, blankets and other gear to help our vets.
We often work with Chicago’s VA hospitals and with church and community leaders to raise awareness about homeless vets. The deacons and many parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago have become actively involved in caring for homeless veterans. Lutheran Churches and other denominations in our region actively work to help the vets. Christians and peace activists nationwide are called to help the men and women who gave so much for us.
The relationship between veterans and peace activists is long and complicated. While many people try to reject the military altogether, we should always remember that some of the most effective advocates for peace have been members of anti-war veterans groups. Many veterans and peace activists were deeply distressed with the ways that some governmental leaders, especially under President George W. Bush, ignored the needs of returning veterans. Therefore, justice for veterans had to become a deep concern for the peace movement.
LINKING ARMS AMONG ACTIVISTS
Many peace activists have a long history in the movement. Although growing up in a military family, my faith in God convinced me at an early age that I could not, in good conscience, support violence and war. Ever since the 1960’s I have been active in movements for peace, civil rights, and labor. As a member of the United Auto Workers in Detroit, I worked the assembly line and walked the picket line. I demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, and served on the local and national boards of several peace organizations. I have also been a long-time member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.
I stood on the front line with Coretta King and Ralph Abernathy at a Boston civil rights march. We faced an attack of club-wielding mounted police. I stood arm in arm with Dr. Spock and Phil Berrigan on the steps of the Pentagon. Across the years, I have run a variety of religious programs for peace and justice. In Detroit, I ran a vital ministry advocating for justice and respect for people with AIDS. I also created The World Sabbath, the first interfaith holy day of peace among the broad spectrum of races and religions of the world.
With all of my involvement in the peace movement, I also have been involved for a long time with veteran’s concerns. In the early 1980’s I was pastor of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. There, I met Rob Tyner, the former lead-singer with the MC5. Rob and I worked together to organize a series of community concerts at the church. Rob had been one of the most outspoken opponents of the war during the 1960’s and 70’s. After the war, he became an outspoken advocate for the veterans. Even though President Nixon and the nation generally ignored and mistreated veterans, I was proud to help Rob, and Chapter 9 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, create programs to bring justice and respect to the vets.
Many long-term peace activists are just as dedicated as I have been, and most of us realize that our soldiers have been deeply victimized by war. They have been trained to kill, and forced to serve many tours of duty in places of endlessly horrific violence. They have seldom been given the kinds of therapy, retraining and guidance they need when they return to civilian life. We are not surprised at the deep wounds and emotional conflict the vets exhibit. So we raise our voice and tell the world that we must care for these victims, just as we would care for any victims of war.
A NEW VETERANS FELLOWSHIP & TRANSFORMING CHURCH PRACTICES
Our work in Illinois allowed me to become more involved with ministry to veterans. I met Adam Navarro-Lowery, and James Redden. Both of them are Episcopalians and both are Iraq-war era veterans. Adam and James were working with our friends from Jesse Brown VA Medical Center to make sure those veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars received the best care and support possible.
The three of us established the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship (EVF) in the Diocese of Chicago. This Fellowship encourages the church to take a more active role in caring for troubled veterans. Three years ago, EVF wrote a new policy statement on ministry to veterans. This statement was accepted as official policy by our diocesan convention. This statement was accepted as national church policy at the last Episcopal Church General Convention. Our bishop, Jeff Lee, and many parishes around the Diocese of Chicago have become actively involved in ministry to veterans.
While the majority of veterans have successfully returned to their former civilian lives, many are still struggling. Leaders of government, churches, and medical and community organizations are deeply concerned with the rate of suicide, homelessness, PTSD and poverty among returning veterans. In the midst of this Holiday Season, let us remember that Christians, peace activists, military and governmental leaders all have a responsibility to speak out and take action on behalf of our veterans. They gave so much for us and we must do what we can for them.
NEAR THE MIDWEST? PLAN TO ATTEND WORLD SABBATH 2012
Our readers live across the U.S. and in English-speaking countries around the world. Small groups in countries as distant as New Zealand and Panama have discussed ReadTheSpirit books. The whole point of the annual World Sabbath, scheduled for January 29 in 2012, is to celebrate the spiritual ties that bind our globe. While the World Sabbath liturgies have been celebrated in many places—the original home base for the World Sabbath is Michigan and founder Rod Reinhart will be attending the Michigan event this year.
Read about the 2012 World Sabbath and plan to attend!
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.