Written by Anthony Moujaes
On Veterans Day, many United Church of Christ congregations will take time to recognize the sacrifices of our military men and women, and offer support to their families at home.
Sunday, the Rev. Bernard Wilson will wear his Navy uniform and lead his congregation to the town hall for a service of remembrance for past and present military service people. "We want them to be mindful that we have people who are away protecting us," said Wilson, now pastor of Norfield Congregational UCC in Weston, Conn., and vice chair of the UCC's Executive Council. He previously spent 22 years as a Navy chaplain.
The UCC has a handful of chaplains who will be spending Veterans Day deployed -- some to Kuwait and Afghanistan, and two others on the way to Germany and Belgium -- with more serving in the United States with the military reserves or as prison chaplains.
"They're doing some incredible work," said the Rev. Stephen Boyd, UCC minister for chaplains and specialized ministers. The UCC has 46 men and women serving as military chaplains on active duty in the National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves, and another 25 chaplains endorsed for the Veterans Administrations to serve veterans returning from deployment.
Just as chaplains care for military personnel, pastoral care is also a necessity at home. As congregations across the country observe the holiday on behalf of a grateful nation, Wilson asks that they seek out and support the spouses, children and families of those service people and offer them their prayers.
"Separation issues are the No. 1 thing I dealt with overseas," Boys said. "There's a sense that life goes on over here and there's nothing they can do about it, and congregations are trying to say, ‘How can we be there [for active-duty families]."
Another project Boyd would like to see take shape involves working with outside groups to reintegrate veterans into the community after returning from active duty. "I'm trying to see where we can start offering resources to congregations to become veteran friendly," Boyd said.
There are basic ways congregations can welcome veterans. "It can be something as simple as having a pastor ask veterans to stand in recognition of their service," he said. Churches can also offer their thanks to active personnel and veterans for their service.
Wilson, who has a son in the Navy, said the role of a military chaplain can be fun, but carries a set of challenges. "Certainly at the top of the list is to provide religious opportunities for everyone, even though we represent a particular denomination," Wilson said. "If I'm out to sea, and a ship has 800 people, my responsibility is to ensure that anyone who wants to worship [is] able to do so comfortably."
Even though chaplains are ordained by a specific denomination, Wilson says the role expands so that military personnel recognize chaplains as spiritual leaders and not a representative of any one faith group. Chaplains also take on a dual role of sorts as both pastors and officers, since the military gives them officer ranking.
"I think what we want to ensure is that every service person has the opportunity to express their faith -- that's the role of the chaplain," said Wilson. "So as we lift chaplains up in prayer and ask God to give them the strength to care for people who are put in harms way, to ensure morale is high, and [offer] more ways to support them [and] their families who are home alone."
Anyone interested in serving as a chaplain should contact Boyd. More information is also available online. Boyd is also seeking to bring more females into the ministry of chaplaincy, and the UCC is an avenue to achieve that since the church ordains women.
"There are more women in military, but we have very few women chaplains. The percentage is about 3 to 3.5 percent," Boyd said. "A lot of that is the fact is that most denominations in chaplaincy do not ordain women. With the changing face of the military, with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and with more and more women, chaplaincy needs to become more representative of the boots on the ground."