UCC pastor: In ministry to military veterans and their families, listen
Memorial Day will be observed in the United States this year on Monday, May 30. In this commentary, a Pennsylvania pastor reflects on ministry to military veterans and whether Memorial Day has a place in a congregation’s worship.
‘Tis the season once again when everyone has an opinion on what they deem “patriotic music” during worship services. Does it make us seem pro-war? Does it have a place in worship? And what about the American flag? I submit the following as a reflection to ponder.
In my first church, 20-some years ago, I listened to all the discussion at a clergy breakfast on how or what to do with Memorial Day and the church. Thinking “safe” was the best route, I chose to plan a lectionary service and ignore the holiday. It is a secular holiday and has no place in worship, or so I reasoned.
I just about made it through that Sunday service, when Gene shouted to me, “Pastor Teresa, it is Memorial Day tomorrow and we have to sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'” Before I could reply, the organist started an introduction.
A little back story: Gene was a mostly cantankerous, elderly man in the congregation who let his opinion be known, very loudly. (I know I am the only pastor to ever experience this kind of parishioner.) Gene had served in the Navy on some of the first submarines created. His health suffered greatly because of the lack of clean oxygen in those early machines, or tin cans, as Gene called them.
Gene’s nemesis in the congregation was Fred, who had served in the Army. The two of them sat four pews apart and traded military barbs every Sunday.
So, back to The Battle Hymn: I buried my head in my hymnal during the first verse, thinking I had failed. Then I peered around my hymnal to look out at the congregation. There were Gene and Fred standing side by side in the aisle, singing loudly, with tears running down their faces.
Now I was really confused.
As they were leaving, Fred said to me, “We needed a moment to remember and grieve our friends that never came home. That American flag reminds me of them every week I come into worship. Knowing they are with Jesus is the only peace I get from war and gives me hope there will be no more war.”
Since that experience, I realized that my interpretations of “patriotic music” and the flag were very different from those of the veterans in my congregation. I now ask them, and families of those who served, what they need. Within my current church family, they need to sing the songs as prayers, not as political statements or warmongers, but as nontraditional songs of remembrance, honor and grief. We talk about this history of the hymns and why they are important, and these songs truly become sacred music.
Other veterans may feel uncomfortable, and we talk about their needs too. Some veterans feel betrayed and alienated through their time in the military.
I encourage you to have those conversations with veterans, and families of veterans, about what they need as part of their grief and faith journey. There is no right answer, but asking the question shows we truly care.
If you truly want to honor Memorial Day, I encourage you to have the dialogue and be ready to listen. I now sing The Battle Hymn with tears in my own eyes, remembering Gene and Fred. I pray they found the peace they so longed for.
The Rev. Teresa Hughes-Martin is pastor of St. John’s UCC in Coopersburg, Pa. The church hosts a veterans’ support group, and this year will add to its Memorial Day service a recognition of those who have died in the current war in Ukraine.
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