By: KATHY L. GILBERT*
(This article originally appeared on the United Methodist News Service website on April 9th, 2009).
“Holy Saturday,” the day between life and death, is the place where many returning military personnel and their families live, a theology professor told participants at a conference to help churches welcome home the warrior.
Shelly Rambo, assistant professor of theology at United Methodist-related Boston University School of Theology, was one of the keynote speakers for the April 1-2 gathering of JustPeace . She is author of “Trauma and Redemption: Witnessing Spirit Between Death and Life,” forthcoming by Westminster John Knox Press.
She explained that Holy Saturday is the day after the crucifixion and the day before resurrection. Someone living in that day is stuck between dealing with trauma and getting on with life.
“War changes people and not for the good,” Rambo said. “There is no going back to who they were before war, and yet when they return home they are expected to be the same.”
The world wants to offer them “beer and turkey dinners” and tell them to get over it, Rambo said. “Christian communities must engage in the moral complexities of war.”
Dealing with trauma
Rambo led sessions on Trauma Healing 101 and Trauma Healing and Theology. The Rev. Laura Bender, a United Methodist Navy chaplain, led sessions on the role of churches with returning veterans and moderated a panel of chaplains reflecting on what they heard during the two-day conference.
JustPeace, a center for mediation and conflict transformation affiliated with the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, and the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the United Methodist Endorsing Agency sponsored the event. Participants included clergy, pastoral counselors and concerned laity.
The “ongoingness” of the Iraq war with multiple deployments, high suicide rates, family disruptions and health care crises, are taking a toll on the nation’s soul, according to Rambo.
“The role of religious leaders is timely and necessary,” she said. Religious leaders need to learn about trauma and how to integrate theological resources when faced with someone who has been traumatized.
Rambo said trauma occurs when a person’s ability to respond to a threat is overwhelmed. “Trauma is when your biology gets assaulted in such a way that you might not be able to reset yourself.”
People who have been traumatized reorganize their lives around the trauma, she explained. Many times a person who has experienced the horrors of war lives with images that a sight, sound or smell can trigger, propelling the person back into the situation.
“I see so much pain and hurt. Even though we are opposed to war, maybe we can bring some comfort, compassion and healing to those who are fighting for us,” said Tiffany Smith, a seminary student at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. She plans to be a Navy chaplain in a few years.
“It is going to be a few years before I can go on active duty, and I wanted to know what I can bring into the church (on this subject) since I will have my appointment in several weeks when I graduate in May,” she said.
The Rev. Brian Marcoulier serves as associate pastor at Madison Street United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Tenn., which is located near Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne.
“I appreciated the diversity of thought and struggle with this issue,” he said. “We are a congregation that believes in peace and works toward that, but we also want to embrace the warrior, the soldier, and the tension of those two things is certainly a personal struggle that I feel. To see I am amongst colleagues in that same struggle but willing to have the conversation, to me speaks volumes.”
The Rev. J. Paul Womack, retired Army chaplain, said he would like to see churches reflecting on Holy Saturday, “that middle ground.”
“I haven’t felt the presence of God since Vietnam, and I am ordained. That is a long time to be in Saturday. I think that is probably true for a lot of our folks who have seen things that have them stuck some place.”
The Rev. Dennis Goodwin, also a retired Army chaplain, said one of the strengths of The United Methodist Church is an ability to engage hard subjects. “We can deal with Holy Saturday, we can engage in hard decisions others will not discuss.”
The Rev. Ronald McCants, a participant in the conference who is also a retired chaplain and pastor of Mount Sinai United Methodist Church, Mantua, Ala., said many returning soldiers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They have seen people killed,” he explained. “Soldiers are stigmatized and labeled, and we must find ways to educate our congregations about what is going on because they are heroes.”
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.