One congregation, many ways to support military service members


One congregation, many ways to support military service members

Capt. Warren Vaneman in Afghanistan.

The transition home from active combat zones or multiple deployments is often difficult for men and women who serve in the military, many of whom are young adults.

The physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and social challenges they face are complex. And few people back home can relate to the unique, intense experiences they may have lived in and endured.

This is exactly where congegations — caring, supportive faith communities — play a significant role in the transitions and healing facing returning military service members and their families.

“I realized that the transition home was going to be challenging while traveling home. We flew from Kuwait to Baltimore, with a fuel stop in Germany,” recalled Capt. Warren Vaneman (U.S. Navy Reserve) about the long flight home from his one-year deployment in Afghanistan.

There were returning warriors, wounded warriors and military dependents on the same flight, each returning to the challenges of adjusting to a “new normalcy.” “I wondered what the new normalcy was going to be for my family and me.”

Welcome home

When Warren returned home in June 2011, the pastor and members of his home congregation, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Haymarket, Va., wanted to find a way to welcome him back to his family, his community and their congregation.

Mark Olsen, an ELCA pastor, was one year into his call at Shepherd of the Hills when Warren returned home. “I was sensitive to the fact that we were doing something new. In the past, our congregation had other service members return home from war zones who were not given the chance to publicly affirm their faith during worship. Still, we didn’t want that to prevent us from beginning a new practice, one we could continue in the future.”

They searched for an appropriate rite or resource that could be used during worship but found nothing that met their needs.

That prompted Mark to adapt the Affirmation of Baptism found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. As Mark explained to his congregation, the Affirmation of Baptism rite is used increasingly as a way for individuals and congregations to mark significant life transitions. It allows people to reaffirm their baptismal faith and the blessings it brings, and renew their commitment to life together as a faith community.

With the help of Eric Wester, assistant to the presiding bishop of the ELCA, director of ELCA Federal Chaplaincies, and also an ELCA pastor, Mark adapted the rite and used it during an outdoor Sunday worship service.

Warren, surrounded by his wife and two sons, affirmed his baptism and welcomed the prayers for God’s blessing offered for him as his family members and others laid hands on him as a sign of their continuing love and support.

Stoles, cards and a chance to talk

In March of the following year, Shepherd of the Hills was given another chance to show their support for military service members.

Susan Newman, a liturgical artist from Connecticut, contacted Shepherd of the Hills about participating in an ecumenical effort to make and deliver camouflage stoles to military chaplains serving in Afghanistan. The response was overwhelmingly positive!

Susan sent a special stole to the the congregation where it was displayed during Sunday worship services. The congregation said a prayer of blessing over the stole, and prayed for the unknown chaplain who would eventually wear it.

They wrote cards and letters that accompanied the stole to Afghanistan for the chaplain to share with the soldiers he or she served, as an expression of thanks for their service.

The following month, Warren shared his experiences with the congregation. Everyone was invited to join adult, high school and confirmation classes as he shared stories and images of the people, places and cultures he encountered in Afghanistan during his deployment.

The 45-minute presentation gave Warren the chance to convey to the congregation a sense of what life had been like living and serving in a combat zone and gave the congregation a chance to ask questions.

He felt a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to share, even though some people didn’t want to hear about what happened and others were more curious. “The congregation inviting me to share my experiences with the presentation was more helpful than they will ever know. Most warriors are proud of their service and want to tell about their experiences on their own terms. After all, six, nine or 12 months is a long time and can’t be erased. They allowed me to talk about my life during those months and the impact it made on me.”

The care and support continues

Finally, this past August, Mark purchased six copies of the new Prayer Book for the Armed Services produced by the ELCA and Augsburg Fortress. The Prayer Book includes the modified Affirmation of Baptism that Mark used with his congregation and the Vaneman family.

Mark gave copies to a personal friend serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve, a copy to a young-adult member of Shepherd of the Hills now in her second year as a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet, and a copy to Warren.

Each found the Prayer Book to be a helpful personal resource and a welcome sign of pastoral care and support expressed to them on behalf of the church.

“Our congregation practices radical hospitality for all. We value and respect those who serve in our military, and in other forms of government service. Finding new ways to welcome Capt. Vaneman — and others — home was, and continues to be, a natural expression of who we are as a community of faith,” says Mark.

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