On this sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, guest blogger David Pyle, military veteran and candidate to be a UU military chaplain, shares his perspective.
I remember watching television six years ago today as the U.S. Military crossed the border into Iraq, in an operation known later as “Iraqi Freedom”. I remember feeling a conflict between my identity as a military veteran and my identity as a Unitarian Universalist. My growing Unitarian Universalist faith had brought me to a commitment never to personally carry a weapon again, and yet seeing those young men and women going into harm’s way, I felt that somehow I was supposed to be there with them.
In the months that followed, I wrestled with whether my faith called me to a personal pacifism, or whether I should re-enlist in the Army to be with the soldiers I had once trained as they went to war. The political questions about the conflict, the justifications made, the words said by politicians… all of this was distant compared to this deep spiritual question: Which is greater, the responsibility I feel to my self and my faith, or the responsibility I feel to those young men and women with whom I had once served?
As “Shock and Awe” was talked about and images of combat and falling statues dominated our media, I sat at my television in this spiritual conflict. I talked to recruiters about how I might put the uniform back on, and I kept silent at church for fear they would not understand. Over a period of months, I came to the realization that my personal faith would not allow me to carry a weapon ever again. That seemed to be the end of the question, until I realized over a year later that it was possible to do both, as a Unitarian Universalist Minister serving as a Military Chaplain.
One of the most common questions that Unitarian Universalists without military experience ask about military ministry is whether our liberal faith is attractive to or can be understood by those serving in the military. Unitarian Universalist military veterans never ask this question, because they know from their own lives how much our faith can speak to the military experience, how it can even seem like salvation. Even with my own experience as a soldier, I do not think I realized the profound depth of what Unitarian Universalism offers to those who serve until I began presenting weekly Unitarian Universalist Worship at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Recruit Training Command.
For over two years, students at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and members of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois have facilitated a Sunday Morning Unitarian Universalist worship service for the naval recruits going through basic training. Begun by myself and a fellow UU seminarian and military servicemember, Seanan Holland, the service reaches almost 1000 young women and men per year with a message of inherent worth, interdependence, love, and hope. Though some of our recruits have been life-long UU’s or attended UU churches before, the vast majority are encountering our liberal faith for the first time. Depending on the time of year, each service draws between 20 and 90 recruits every Sunday morning.
If there is one thing I have personally learned from being with these young women and men these past two years, it is that Unitarian Universalism speaks deeply to who they are, and what they are facing in basic training and in the years to come. A faith that recognizes the inherent worth of all is profound, because they are often questioning their own worth. A faith that teaches interdependence is profound, because they are learning to be interdependent upon one another. A faith that challenges them to spiritual growth is profound, because basic training is a time of deep personal transformation. It is empowering to show that they can have a profound impact on who they want to be in this world.
In the last six months, we have encountered a new trend among the recruits who attend UU Worship. Many are seeking ways that they can continue to practice and identify as Unitarian Universalists in the years to come. They ask for help in finding the nearest UU congregation to their next assignment. They ask for a way to connect with the Church of the Larger Fellowship while they are serving overseas (www.clfuu.org/military). They ask for a symbol of a chalice that they can wear on their Identification Tags. While we can help with the first two, we do not have the funding to provide the ID Tag Chalices… yet.
Because for me, this ministry is about planting a seed of Unitarian Universalism, a seed of liberal faith. That seed may grow now, in the case of those who are asking for ways to identify with and connect to our religious movement beyond basic training. That seed may also grow later, when the experiences of their lives show them that they need a faith and a church with the healing message of universal love and grace. Such a seed sprouted in me, almost ten years after a military chaplain first said “Unitarian Universalism” to me, and was a part of my healing after I served as a Peacekeeper in Bosnia y Herzegovina.
I believe that there is no more profound act of social justice than bringing our values and principles into communities where they are needed, before they are needed. If we begin these young men and women on a path of thinking of the inherent worth and the interdependence of all at the beginning of their military service, perhaps we bring the military as a whole closer to our values and principles. And maybe, just maybe, bringing our principles and values into our military communities can bring our world closer to healing and peace.
This is my vision on this anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.
Yours in Faith,
MOD Minister, Great Lakes Military Ministry
Candidate for the UU Ministry
U.S. Army Chaplain Candidate
David, what’s the funding required to be able to do that?
With regard to your final paragraph on bringing our values, I was watching an episode from 2007 of Robert Bazell’s Wounds of War and watched a call for blood. A reporter asked one of the soliders giving if he realized his blood was probably going to be given to an insurgent. The soldier responded without hesitation (and maybe some annoyance) that it didn’t matter, it was a human life.
I was in Baghad for nine weeks next to that Hospital with Americans, Iraqis, and many other Nationalities… a Shia Iraqi told me there’s only one God and we’re all God’s children.
We don’t bring our values to the battlefield so much as see others: a GI giving blood, a Shia Housing Manager in a FOB living our values. They don’t know about UU values, but they voiced them. We don’t know about many who voice are values but know little of us, and I hope if UU’s talk about blood for oil they realize that there are a good many people fighting for Liberal values out there. They deserve some support not as victims who’ve been duped by some sysem but as people who fought for values.
Thank you both for your comments…
Patrick (Ogre), a run of about 500 with a chalice on one side and “I am a Unitarian Universalist” on the other would run about 900 dollars… which is almost the full budget for the ministry for a whole year. We run completely on the donations of congregations in the Chicago area, paying only travel expenses for our worship leaders (no honorariums). There are many things I would love to do for the recruits and the worship leaders, but times are tight…
Bill, I agree… the lens we bring to life is as much a minsitry as anything else we might do… and perhaps some of our recruits take that lens with them into the larger community of the military.
Yours in Faith,
Keep up the great work! It was rewarding to get to know you at Meadville this January. Blessings on your continued work.