From shock to service: How congregations respond to war's impact

April 8, 2003

(ENS) For the most part, military chaplains come from congregations that receive the news that their priest is being mobilized and potentially deployed "suddenly," explains Bishop George Packard, the Episcopal Church's suffragan for chaplains. "It sends a shock wave through the whole Eucharistic community and they have to reorient themselves: how do we function, how do we take care of the priest's family left behind, how do we take care of our own needs? Will we have enough money for an interim priest? So there's lots of kinds of stressors that are brought immediately upon these congregations as well as those priests who are being deployed as chaplains."

Packard's office has learned to work with diocesan bishops to form a plan for congregations whose priest, now a chaplain, may be gone for a year or more. "The old days of the prior Gulf War where you would be out for six, seven months tops are a thing of the past," he said. "These folks are mobilizing now, expecting to be there through December."

Some congregations take it in stride. "It varies. Some congregations just plow right ahead and we never hear anything," said the Ret. Gerry Blackburn, director for military ministries. "Others call us and say they need help. Some don't have the resources, and the priest steps out of the picture for six, seven months, and attendance sometimes drops, income sometimes drops. But that is the exception more than the rule."


Focus on the work at hand

The important thing for Packard's office is to make certain such concerns don't weigh on the mind of a deployed chaplain. "We try to enhance the environment so that they're only looking forward at the present situation, not at what's going on at home," Packard explained. "It's a hard human dynamic to put in place, but if they're not present with their current charge of the military unit that's around them, they're really nowhere, they're caught between two worlds. So it's a very important thing to encourage that focus to the work that's at hand."

Packard and Blackburn have been working with vestries and preparing materials in concert with the Church Pension Fund in the last two months, to help churches that are having a tough time financially in meeting the obligations of a priest who's away. "The Pension Fund folks have been really supportive and trying to help us in every way," Blackburn said.

"We learned the hard way that if you try to reinvent the wheel and not go through dioceses, you're in trouble," Packard said. "So we have made sure that beyond the obvious thing of supporting military chaplains and their families, the dioceses are the ones that know of the families of active-duty military."

Already, Packard has had to travel to a prayer service at Grace Church in Merchantville, New Jersey, the home parish of Sgt. James Riley, a mechanic with the 507th Maintenance Company who was among those ambushed early in the war after taking a wrong turn near Nasiriyah. Riley and four others have been held captive by Iraqi forces since March 23. Injured private first class Jessica Lynch and the bodies of eight soldiers from that company have been recovered.

"That diocese has a support plan. They have connected with every congregation and tried to find who are the Episcopalians in the military," said Packard. "So we've been collecting plans for how these dioceses have been doing that, posting those on the web page and trying to get dioceses to copy each other."


A non-anxious presence

If Packard has one piece of advice for congregations and dioceses, it's this: "Find out who are the military in your dioceses. They tend to be invisible. They're either embarrassed about serving in the military, or it just never comes up so this is not the time for these families and individuals to be isolated. It's also not the time to be isolated from the Islamic community, the Arab community, in your town."

It's also important to provide communities with a "non-anxious presence," he said. "This is a time to develop what we call the St. Paul effect--keep the lights on in the church and make it accessible to all [as St. Paul's Chapel did at Ground Zero in New York]. We've learned that despite what everybody tells you to do, you keep the church open, the coffeepot on, some sort of maven-like character there if the rector's not so disposed, and have a place open where people can come in."

Packard and Blackburn emphasized that the experience of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks and their aftermath taught them the importance of preparation for disaster. "I remember Bishop Packard calling us all together and saying you know, we may have to do this again one day. Let's be ready," Blackburn recalled. They've prepared and sent to every Episcopal congregation a new CD resource called "What to Do Next When a Disaster Strikes," designed to help congregations and communities faced with responding to any crisis--going to war, facing a terrorist event, even a natural disaster.

--The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service