By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Mission Network) — A six-week Sunday school curriculum — Returning Veterans, Returning Hope: Seeking Peace Together — can help small groups and congregations who want to explore how the church can play a part in the healing journeys of returning veterans. The materials draw on biblical reflection, the latest understandings of trauma and moral injury, and the experiences of veterans themselves.
“We have long known that war affects not only innocent civilians but also those we ask to fight,” said Carolyn Holderread Heggen, trauma psychotherapist and creator of the “Transforming the Wounds of War” program at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “Growing numbers of Mennonites are convinced that an appropriate and urgent peacemaking focus and healing ministry is addressing the profound physical, emotional and spiritual wounds of returning veterans and their families.”
The authors of the curriculum, Jason Boone and Titus Peachey, noticed this interest across the church as well. Boone serves as coordinating minister of the Peace and Justice Support Network (PJSN) (a ministry of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Mission Network), and Peachey is now retired from his role as coordinator for Peace Education for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S.
“As we talked with folks, we saw that they had knowledge and desire but didn’t know how to dig deeper [in responding to veterans’ needs],” Boone said. “The next step would be to go to Eastern Mennonite University for STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience) training, which is a great training but is prohibitive for some people for various reasons. We wanted to create something congregations could dig into and wrestle with where they were at — to give them permission to have relationships with veterans and to learn about what they’re facing.”
Boone credits EMU’s STAR training with having given him and Peachey a foundation from which to create the curriculum. They designed the lessons to help congregations think both theologically and practically about healing from the trauma of war and learning the meaning of Jesus’ way of peace — assuming that peace churches and military veterans could benefit by walking this path together. As Boone and Peachey wrote the materials, they tested them with people across the church, including Heggen and Evan Knappenberger, an Iraq War veteran and EMU student.
The curriculum has been available for about two years. Since it can be downloaded for free, Boone doesn’t know how many groups have used it, but he says the anecdotes they’ve heard have been positive.
“One unexpected result was that we realized we have a lot more veterans in our churches than we knew about,” he reflected. “The curriculum has given the veterans we already have among us permission and a much-needed space to talk about their experiences. Some have said, ‘I didn’t know I could bring this up at all [in a Mennonite church].’”
An elective Sunday school class at Albany (Oregon) Mennonite Church (AMC) studied the Returning Veterans curriculum in January and February; Heggen and Ray Kauffman co-taught the series. According to Kauffman, attendance was generally between 18 and 24 people.
“Nearly everyone agreed that this was a very informative and helpful series of lessons,” Kauffman reflected. “I’m sure we are all more aware of veterans and their needs, and also their viewpoints.”
He noted that the congregation has seven veterans, three of whom attended some or all of the Sunday sessions.
“The trauma lessons were painful, but we were blessed with having Carolyn [Heggen] teach them,” Kauffman said, adding that Heggen drew from various sources to explain the many facets of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other war-related ailments.
“It’s our hope that AMC will be more open to veterans and their needs, as well as listening to what they have to teach us,” Kauffman said. “After serving in combat, many vets agree that war is contrary to the will of God and must be avoided. But I think it will be hard to measure the long-term effects of this class on the life of AMC. May it be leaven in our community and witness.”
John Kreider, a retired minister and member of Huntington Mennonite Church in Newport News, Virginia, expressed gratitude for the curriculum, which he studied as part of a group that included veterans, relatives of veterans and people with no military connections.
“Everyone contributed freely and listened respectfully and with great interest,” he said. “Even though there was a biblical setting for each study period, most of our time together was spent in telling and listening to personal stories.”
At least one youth group has used the curriculum — the junior high youth of First Mennonite Church (FMC) of Denver.
“I was fascinated by the fact that not all vets think about the devastation of war,” reflected Ellie Knowles, one of the youth in the class.
Hopes for the future
Boone said he hopes congregations will embrace the curriculum and intentionally work at connecting with veterans of the U.S. armed forces, of which there were 21.8 million in 2014, according to the Census Bureau.
“We can’t equip ourselves and just say, ‘Maybe a veteran will come [to church] and we’ll be nice to them,’” he said. “We want congregations to proactively find ways to create relationships with people in their communities.”
Sponsors of the curriculum are the PJSN and MCC U.S. A congregational training on relating to veterans is also available.
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