Zion developed the Veteran’s Action Team early in 2009. As with all ministries that become part of the fabric of the church, it is difficult to state precisely how it began. I suppose it began because I needed a positive action to counteract my own frustration regarding veteran’s issues. More and more wounded and traumatized vets were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it seemed that as a nation we were paying lip service to their needs. It is easy to put a “Support the troops” magnet on the back of your SUV. It is hard to really confront the debt we owe these veterans. Absent a draft, the majority of us can go about our daily lives as though there is no war going on.
We formed a group interested in finding concrete ways that our church could become involved in the lives of our veterans. We had no idea how to begin, what to do, or even if a church should be involved in such things. By gathering community partners a coalition gradually formed. We invited to our first meeting representatives from the local American Legion and VFW posts. We also involved some community members who represented advocacy groups. We were soon overwhelmed by the possibilities for mission projects. Where to begin?
Should we be visiting elderly vets in nursing homes and VA facilities? Should we be holding forums to educate people on the issues? Should we be helping local elderly vets with chores around the house? What about providing transportation to VA hospitals? Should we help the local reserve unit which was then preparing to deploy to Iraq? Maybe we should get involved in military family support? The list was endless.
An interesting first project emerged. The non-profit World T.E.A.M. (the exceptional athlete matters) Sports formed to offer disabled vets the opportunity to participate in sports with adaptive equipment and special training. This organization has an annual event called “Face of America”, which is a 110 mile bike ride from D.C. to Adams County—where our church is located! One of the organizers came to our church and offered us the possibility of staffing one of the rest stops. It didn’t sound like a very big thing until we realized that were over 300 riders in the event.
The event proved to be a good way to get our feet wet and make some contacts. Last April we organized, staffed, and funded the last rest stop on the route. We had a tremendous time and were so humbled by the tenacity and courage of the disabled riders. We enjoyed meeting them and everyone went away changed by the event. For most of us it was the first time we had ever met a 22 year old amputee, and had the privilege of hearing his story. It was the first time we realized that the wounded were not just young people. Because of the number of reserve units involved in the war many of the wounded were in their late 30s, and even 40s and 50s. Helping with the bike ride is now an annual event for our church. It gave us confidence and the desire to do more.
We are expanding our reach with another “wounded warrior” project. There is an organization called Project Healing Waters, which exists to teach disabled vets the pleasure of fly fishing. Volunteers go to Walter Reed Hospital weekly to teach fly casting…out on the lawn of the hospital. Healing Waters then provides transportation and equipment to bring the wounded to various fishing sites. The host site provides fishing guides, food, friendship and a nice day streamside and away from the hospital. (Most all of the wounded at Walter Reed are still on active duty while they are being treated, and most are amputees. The length of stay is about two years.) Because we have excellent trout fishing in our area, and members who belong to fishing clubs…we felt this was a natural fit for us. We look forward to our first event in September. My hunch is that like the bike ride, it will become an annual event.
One of the riders at the bike event last year tipped us off to another project. I asked him what sorts of things would be helpful for the people at Walter Reed. He let me know that Subway and Dunkin Donuts had outlets in the lobby at Walter Reed, and were very popular with the patients and families. The cafeteria food gets a little tiresome! However, money is always tight. He suggested getting gift cards for the food kiosks. We collected gift cards, and money for gift cards as our Christmas Eve offering. A small delegation of us took them to Walter Reed and presented them to the chaplain’s office, who was in charge of their distribution. The cards were a big hit. We also had the opportunity to tour the facility. The physical therapy unit was a heart-wrenching sight.
Other projects have been done in cooperation with our local Legion and VFW posts. The PA Stryker Brigade deployed last year, and we helped with mailing support materials, and with some of the family activities. Our Sunday School children help the local post to place flags on the veteran’s graves in our local cemetery. Our kids really look forward to this, and it has expanded their awareness that men and women have gone in harm’s way on our behalf. Because civic activities related to Memorial Day are on the decline in so many of our communities, we feel this is a vital teaching for our children and are glad to promote it in our church.
Projects in which we are becoming involved are the Holy Joe’s Café, in which coffee is provided for a coffee house ministry in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. It supports the efforts of chaplain’s to provide a safe and comforting place for troops to gather , relax, and enjoy a good cup of coffee. We gather paperback books for “Operation Paperback” which ships books for leisure reading for the troops. We also gather supplies and goodies to send for one of our own members stationed in Iraq. Last, we are exploring the possibilities that we may assist local veterans in seeking benefits. Special training for this sort of assistance is available through the VA.
We hold a special service for Veteran’s Day. This is when we recognize the veterans among us and honor their service. Last year in a dialogue sermon we compared and contrasted the Christian notion of sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the soldier in war. How is it the same and how is it different? We also explore in our worship the failing of the human heart to live in true brotherhood and sisterhood, which gives rise to the need for war. Christians must always hold in tension the immutable teachings of Christ regarding peace and reconciliation, and the reality that we cannot seem to resolve differences without bloody conflict. This is a great opportunity for preaching and liturgy that proclaims the inherent contradiction in praying for peace while voting for war. We can’t have it both ways. This is our struggle, and what better place than church to work out that struggle?
We find that our veteran’s action group has people of all political persuasion, from the left to the right. We find common ground in our respect for the veteran and his or her service to our country. Yet this ministry is not about waving the flag and demanding that “God bless America.” This is a humble acknowledgement that the extraordinary gift of civic freedom takes extraordinary sacrifice. Our Christian freedom allows us the opportunity to express our gratitude, while not resorting to nationalism. A ministry such as this walks a fine line.
We have a savior who walked a fine line. We follow him as we love and serve others, praying that one day—all may be one.
Pastor Kim Blocher