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Unitarian Universalists in the Military

General Assembly 2005 Event 3040

Speakers: Rev. Cynthia Kane, Nancy Hickman, Maj. Greg Rouillard

Sponsored by The Planning Committee, Bull Run Unitarian Universalists (BRUU), The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula (UUCMP).

What does it mean to be Unitarian Universalist and in the military? This was the question that was addressed in what may well be the first General Assembly presentation on UUs and the military, an event that drew over 100 attendees.

Lieutenant Cynthia Kane, Chaplain in the United States Navy, began the presentation by saying that although she is the only UU Navy Chaplain, she doesn't stand alone. There are many UUs in the military, and many who work with the Department of Defense (DoD) as civilian employees. When asked, well over half of those in attendance stood to indicate their status as active duty service members, members of the National Guard or Reserves, retired military, government employees or contractors for the DoD, dependents of these people, or in other ways related to the military. As Kane said, "We are here, we wear camouflage, so get used to it." Kane then asked for silence for those who were with us in spirit, comrades in faith, those serving in harm's way whether of our faith or not, for peace, for comfort for the families of those who had recently died.

With that, moderator Ann Jacobson began the presentation. Jacobson, a DoD civilian employee as librarian for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, spoke of her feelings of ambivalence as a UU working for the DoD-she questions the funding source for her position while at the same time loving the work she does. When the feelings arose several years ago, she gathered together other members of the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula who worked for the military to discuss their feelings. Last year, at GA, she connected with Major Greg Rouillard, an officer in the Marine Corps, and the idea for a program at this year's GA was born. The presentations today, Jacobsen said, will be the thoughts and experiences of four very different and very committed Unitarian Universalists who have strong relationships with the military. It was not, Jacobsen said, a time to talk about the war in Iraq, or about President Bush and politics and policies, but rather individuals' experiences.

Nancy Hickman is a Navy spouse. She spoke of the mug that she has that says that being a Navy spouse is the hardest job. For Nancy and husband Michael, the military is their vocation, while their religion is Unitarian Universalism. There is, she said, a deepening dichotomy between the two. Mike is a chef, and unlike the counted thousands who face the battleground, his work is about providing hospitality and comfort. They believe that there is spirit in his work.

Mike and Nancy met when Nancy worked at Rowe Camp as catering manager and innkeeper. Nancy, as a pastry chef, and Mike, chef, find feeding others is a community ministry-it is a love of giving things away. Mike had been a cook in countless intentional communities as a hippy, and sees himself now as a pacifist in an armed community; his work is a peaceful infiltration.

Mike approaches his vocation with his UU Principles close to heart. Mike and Nancy have been lucky to enjoy the hospitality of two UU congregations that vibrantly welcome military members, first in the Coronado UU Church outside San Diego, and now in the Kitsap UU Fellowship in Bremerton, Washington. In both congregations there has been warmth, comfort and understanding. This was less so in their original UU church in Massachusetts -there they were asked to refrain from all political references, including support for the troops, during Joys and Concerns.

Yet, said Hickman, if we are who we say we are as UUs, we must bless all people, no matter their vocation. We are all, she said, God's chosen people.

Leana Bresnahan is a member of the River of Grass UU Church in South Florida, but she and husband Ken began their UU membership at the UU Church of Monterey Peninsula when Ken was at Fort Ord. Bresnahan said that she grew up in a non-military family, and was so uninformed that when she met Ken, she had never heard of West Point. She was surprised when she fell in love with Ken, then a 2 nd Lieutenant in the Army, because not only did he look great in uniform, but he was also an intelligent person of strong convictions who always spoke his mind, and was always courageous. During the twenty years of Ken's active duty, they lived in 10 places including in Germany, Venezuela, and Panama. Over the years of Ken's career, Bresnahan was always active in Amnesty International, and while they were in Monterey, they were both active in the pacifist group Beyond War.

Bresnahan was surprised, in the mid-1990s, when she first learned about, then applied, and was hired as the International Human Rights Coordinator in the US Southern Command. US Southern Command (active in South America and the Caribbean) is the only command in the US military who has this office, and therefore Bresnahan is the only person in the DoD who is 100% dedicated to advancing human rights in the military. She advises commanders on human rights issues, and she builds relationships with various non-profit organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Bresnahan said that she is able to put her UU values into action, and for her vocation and religion come together. Each month, she said, she asks herself if she is still having a positive effect, and so far the answer has been yes. She says that her experience as a military spouse and a DoD employee, coupled with her progressive stance, her UU values, and her optimistic nature, have lead her to believe that we can move to a place beyond war. But we are not there yet. There is still evil in the world, and, Bresnahan said, we still need the military, police, and security forces, and we need them to be well trained in human rights.

"I know hundreds of military officers and soldiers," Bresnahan said, and they are like us. They are dedicated to something greater than us, and take pride in professionalism and ethics. The military needs to be investigated when they make mistakes, but the great work in our society is to educate the population about responsibilities of being citizens of the most powerful country in the world. We must look, Bresnahan said, at the culture we are exporting, and see that it is okay.

Major Greg Rouillard, an active duty member of the panel, is a member of Bull Run Unitarian Universalists in Manassas. He has been an officer in the Marine Corp for the last seventeen years, and recently spent five months in Iraq. He and wife Cynthia met when he was in the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, and he said he plans to become a UU minister when he retires from active duty. He said that the ministers in Monterey, The Revs. Beth Miller and Forrest Gilmore, and well as his current minister, the Rev. Nancy McDonald, have had a profound effect on him.

Rouillard talked of his experience at Pacific Central Leadership School a couple of years ago. In a conversation with one member, he mentioned he was a Marine. She then introduced him as a Marine the whole day until Rouillard felt he had to tell everyone later that night. He asked people not to think of him as a Marine during the week, but only as Greg. Later during social time, a gay man told him that it was fascinating that as a military person, Rouillard had to "come out," and deal with other people's responses, whereas the gay man was fully accepted without question.

Through his four years at the United States Naval Academy and his 17 years as a Marine, Rouillard said that he was acculturated to the military. He didn't always feel as if he fit in, and wondered where he would. The events of 2001 led his family to the local UU congregation, and there he found a religious tradition that made sense to him. The birth of his daughter that October was a testament to hope that perhaps in her lifetime they would find a way to end the need for war. Rouillard said they came to the UU church for the children, but stayed for themselves. His early visits to the UU congregation were some of his first encounters with community outside the military, and he remembers having tears in his eyes through many of the services.

Rouillard flew jets for 10 years, and although he enjoyed the experience, he is now grateful that he only ever had inert targets to drop bombs on. Although he was headed for a desk job at Quantico, last fall he found out he would be deployed to Iraq for five months. He created a weblog to deal with his feelings-being a Unitarian Universalist who valued life and affirmed the worth and dignity of persons, while being in a war zone. What Rouillard realized was important is that we are all people together-and we should be finding ways to come together rather than pushing each other apart.

Lieutenant Kane spoke of her experience being the only Navy UU chaplain, and how it fits with her ministry. She felt the call to ministry when she was eight, and the call to the military when she was a sophomore in high school. When she was in seminary, she didn't tell her UU colleagues that she was heading for the Navy chaplaincy, and when the colleagues found out at graduation, Kane heard many comments such as "You can't be UU and be in the military." Those who knew her better wondered how such a rule breaker would feel at home in the Navy.

Kane, commissioned in August 2001, heard a different story after September 11 th, when those who earlier criticized her choice of the military started praising her and thanking her for her work. Kane had questioned her decision, but she views her chaplaincy as a call from God, and you can't win an argument with God, she said.

For Kane, her service in the military and her Unitarian Universalism is a blending of perfect integrity. She calls herself a peace loving conscientious objector pacifist, and the Navy knows that. They come to her for the pacifist response to situations. Kane served at Arlington Cemetery, officiating over burials until being assigned to the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Kane wears the cross on her uniform, both as symbol of her Christian upbringing, of the history of Unitarian Universalism as a Christian tradition, and because it allows other to recognize her immediately as a chaplain.

One of the things that is most frustrating, Kane said, is that she feels she must be closeted about her staunch sense of patriotism. When viewing a picture of President John Kennedy at the memorial for him at the Grassy Knoll, she saw in the picture the story of her life-"her" soldiers standing at the casket in the Rotunda of the Capitol. The Rotunda, she reminded us, is "our" space. Thomas Jefferson had it constructed to provide a place for worship, and the portraits of 7 or 8 of our ancestors are on the walls.

Kane said that today's workshop is the first public "coming out," as Rouillard's leadership school co-student pointed out, and it is just the beginning for UU Military Ministries. It is a beginning of sharing stories and having conversations that she hopes continues. "The most radical thing we can do," said Kane, "is introduce ourselves to each other."

The session was then opened up for sharing by others, including active duty and retired military personnel. They questioned how to support military members and families in a staunchly active war church, and others mentioned how their congregations supported military families. Rouillard's wife suggested that having a single person move in while Greg was deployed helped her raise their family, and others could consider this. Over and over again, the panel members said that the best thing is to talk about it, to help military members know they were welcome, and provide support. One woman, retired after 21 years, most recently in Special Operations, thanked the panel for wrestling with these difficult issues, and wish that she had not felt so all alone. This was echoed by active duty personnel who now feel connected. Several aspiring ministers will meet to talk about military chaplaincy. One Lifespan Religious Education Consultant reminded us to mind our language-the young children in our congregations hear things about their parents that unintentionally hurt them. Another veteran of seven years as a submarine officer in the Navy expressed his thanks for this program and the organization. He said that our Unitarian Universalist openness to divergent religious approaches makes us the people ideally suited for military chaplaincy.

The session ended with Jacobson thanking everyone, and letting attendees know of the cyber-connections available with the new military weblog.

Although not affiliated with today's program, those interested in this topic may be interested to know that there is an organization called Unitarian Universalist Military Ministries that serves over 850 members, families and veterans of the Armed Forces of the U.S. through their website, and a UUA-sponsored military chat list.

Prepared for UUA.org by: Lisa Presley, Reporter; Jone Johnson Lewis, Editor

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Tuesday, September 18, 2012.

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