Sometimes it’s a long way home

October 5, 2014

[Diocese of Texas] The sanctuary is quiet, empty and dark. The doors open, and veterans of more than five wars slowly walk in and surround the baptismal font. Prayers for light are spoken as the candles and torches are lit. The pilgrimage begins.

Veterans at this Pilgrimages of Remembrance and Reconciliation are gathered from seven Episcopal parishes. The gathering is itself a healing event, since isolation and estrangement are common symptoms among warriors.

When the candles are lit, each veteran finds their place between the font and the altar, between life and death. Just as we start our journey at the font, so we end our earthly journey at the altar. From this vantage point, the pilgrims reflect on their journey, their war and their future. Often very young veterans will take a position near the altar. One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is a “fore-shortened future.” The word “veteran” comes from the Latin, vetus, which means “old.” War ages people. The young have old eyes when they have seen more than their share of horror and suffering.

The pilgrims gather at the front of the sanctuary and share a name and a happy memory of someone who died in war or homecoming. The names are recorded in a book to be read in a roll call before the altar. Relationships forged in combat are the closest ones most veterans ever have. When someone dies, the grief can be overwhelming and silent for years. The grip of grief is lessened as each name is spoken. The men and women laugh out loud at some of the memories. Not all war stories are full of sadness and death.

As the pilgrims move toward the altar, the priest blesses the Episcopal Church Service Crosses and distributes them. This cross dates to WWI and is worn by Episcopal members of the military. Some of the veterans are wearing the crosses they wore in Vietnam. Others receive a cross for the first time.

The pilgrims kneel at the altar rail and pray a Litany of Healing. They pray a prayer for healing, and a prayer from the Prayer Book titled, “For Our Enemies.” They pray this one in unison although some cannot pray it yet. The first task of wartime propaganda is to sub-humanize the enemy. This is not easily undone. Warriors come home from war plagued by memories, regrets, hyper-vigilance, anger and numbness. The survival skills of war rarely fit into a normal American life.

This is the reason these veterans gathered for this pilgrimage, to come home from war. They come to find reconciliation, a sacrament in the Church. So, before the confession, the veterans write down their confessions on small pieces of paper. They write down the memories they cannot get rid of, no matter how much they drink, or how far they run.

The deacon, the Rev. Robert Chambers, collects these crumpled paper confessions in a vessel, takes them outside, and burns them in the “amnesty box.” The box exists in war zones and military training areas. If soldiers forget to turn in a grenade or some live rounds, they can secretly slip them into a special box, no questions asked. The veterans on this night put their emotional grenades in the amnesty box, symbolizing that these memories are now in God’s hands.

Next they pass the peace. Peace, that elusive and strange concept in war. Wars are fought to restore peace, but they rarely bring peace to the women and men who fight in them. “God’s peace,” they say to one another and perhaps, they start to feel it.

Holy Communion is next. An olive drab corporeal is spread out and a chaplain’s field communion kit is assembled from its compact, camouflage case. It is a rugged communion set, more at home on the hood of a Jeep or a Humvee. Here, in the presence of the blessed bread and wine, the roll call is sounded by the senior enlisted man who is present. The names are tolled off followed by silence and the playing of Taps.

Bread and wine are shared as Air Force veteran, Larry Magnuson, plays an Irish war ballad on a concertina. All the names of the dead and all the experiences of combat are lifted up to God.

Liturgy never solves the problems of the world right away. The words take time to find root in the human soul. So, the pilgrims leave the sanctuary for the fellowship hall where they share stories of war and homecoming. Some discover common battles, just as many civilians discover common friends. Some laugh, some cry, others simply listen the stories of others, unable to share their own. All are invited to reconnect at the next pilgrimage or in one of the two groups that meet regularly.

The service ends but the mission of the newly formed Episcopal Veterans Fellowship goes on. The EVF was formed in the summer of 2014, in response to the 2009 Resolution CO-51 of General Convention to “Encourage the establishment of an Episcopal Veterans Fellowship for each diocese.” Thus far, the EVF has held weekly Tuesday night meetings at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, and at Grace Episcopal Church in nearby Georgetown, Texas. Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the country is just up IH 35.

The meetings focus on fellowship and spiritual growth after combat. Relationships are strengthened and the group is growing. In addition to the weekly meetings, the core group of the EVF has been travelling to conduct Pilgrimages of Remembrance and Reconciliation. If you would like such an event to travel to your parish, please contact the Rev. David Peters at [email protected] or 512.571.4124.

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