To explore the meaning of hospitality as an approach to engaging with military veterans and their families.
Download Returning Veterans curriculum pdf.
by Logan Mehl-Laituri, Iraq War veteran
I think listening is hospitality, and it is at the heart of the Gospels (hospitality, that is). Hospitality has nothing to do with dogma or doctrine or uncompromising convictions; it has to do with responding to the image of God in our neighbor … I can't begin to imagine the ways that God might work in various congregations, but if the Spirit is there, it will move in love, not condemnation, not in indifference, not in distancing ourselves from one another. Preachers will preach difficult, loving sermons; pastors will pray difficult, loving prayers; and educators will teach difficult, loving subjects. It won't be easy, but it needs to be loving.1
2 Kings 6:20-23 (NRSV)
Through remarkable circumstances, Elisha encounters the enemy army of Aram with whom Israel had fought many battles, and takes them to the King of Israel.
"As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, 'O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.' The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, 'Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?' He answered, 'No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.' So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel."
Acts 9 (NRSV)
"Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, 'Ananias.' He answered, 'Here I am, Lord.' The Lord said to him, 'Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.' But Ananias answered, 'Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.' But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.' So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.' And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength."
These remarkable stories from Scripture embody the spiritual practice of hospitality. This is not hospitality at Sunday dinner with china and a white linen tablecloth among friends. This is tension-filled hospitality in contexts where bitterness and enmity could easily result in bloodshed. In the 2 Kings account, the prevailing political and military powers are all poised to kill the enemy. Only the prophet Elisha is able to envision a different outcome. To the astonishment of the king and his soldiers, he proposes a feast instead of a slaughter. This amazing act of hospitality initiates a time of peace between these bitter, warring parties.
In the Acts story we meet Ananias, who openly voices his fear of Saul who has been "breathing murderous threats" against the followers of The Way. To visit Saul, Ananias has to go against his own security instincts and the safety of his community. In addition, he may have had a strong urge to denounce Saul for his role in the murder of Stephen. Surely the trauma from Stephen's brutal stoning was still a raw and open wound among the believers. Yet Ananias finds the courage and grace to address this feared enemy as "Brother Saul," thereby welcoming him into the community of The Way. This is remarkable hospitality.
In neither of the biblical accounts do those extending hospitality seek to control the response of those receiving it. And in both cases, extending hospitality requires great courage. Hospitality is active, engaging, and willing to cross barriers. Hospitality, like God's love, is extended without condition. And while extending hospitality does not guarantee a receptive response, in both of these biblical stories the impact of hospitality is powerful and transforming.
The practice of hospitality is perhaps a good guiding story for peace churches who want to welcome veterans and
together deepen their understandings of Christ's peace. How might churches deeply rooted in a peace tradition engage with fellow human beings whose bodies and souls bear the marks of war? What does peace-church-hospitality-for-
veterans look like in the context of a militarized culture?2
It is important to remember that peace churches and veterans are all part of one militarized context. We are Saul, the one who stood and watched Stephen being stoned; and we are Paul, who urged the early church to love their enemies and overcome evil with good. We are both at the same time, longing to live for peace while also tied to systems and economies of violence. As pacifists and veterans engage with one another, we do so with humility, knowing that we all need God's help to overcome the violence within and the oppressive systems from without.
As a society, we have failed to find alternatives to our persistent use of bombs, tanks and bullets. So we all share responsibility for the wounds and scars that veterans bring home. With this in mind, we offer these practical steps for engagement with veterans:
1. Listen, listen, listen. Be willing to create an unhurried space where the experiences of veterans can be shared if and when they are ready. Be respectful of their stories. Ask open-ended questions. Never ask a veteran if they have killed someone.
2. Do not assume that all veterans are "broken" and need to be "fixed," or that you would have the capacity to repair whatever may be in need of healing. Veterans also have agency and the capacity to be resilient. Be prepared to receive some positive stories from veterans about their military experience.
3. Learn about other agencies and groups within your community that offer services to veterans. Don't work in isolation. Refer when appropriate.
4. Remember that veterans have gifts to share and lessons to teach. Genuine relationships are reciprocal. Open yourself to receive. Express appreciation for what the veteran brings to your relationship.
5. Relate to the veteran, not the war. Don't project your own political views onto the veteran's experience.3 Create a "safe place" for the veteran to talk.
6. Veterans returning from the context of war may find it difficult to trust. Maintain confidentiality, follow through on your appointments, and keep your promises.4
7. Take expressions of guilt and remorse seriously. Some veterans have seen and done things in combat that have been deeply harmful and wounding on many levels. Don't minimize what the veteran may be feeling; yet be especially attentive to expressions of shame or worthlessness. Offer grace. Refer to spiritual counselors or pastors as appropriate.
8. Be aware of your own perspectives and emotions as you relate to veterans. Don't argue. Engage in genuine, respectful discussions. Be collaborative. Explore issues and concerns together.
9. Pray. Offer public and private prayers for veterans and their families even as you offer prayers for the
civilian victims of war. Pray for your own sensitivity to veterans' needs and for the leading of God's Spirit in your relationship.
10. Be yourself. Don't hide your beliefs about Jesus' way of peace. Many veterans are genuinely in search of understandings of God and faith that offer courageous alternatives to war and violence.
11. Don't assume that every relationship with a veteran will blossom into a deep, mutual friendship, or that all veterans that you meet will readily respect peace and nonviolence as the path to true security. If/when perspectives clash, engage in respectful dialogue.
12. Remember that the families of veterans may also be experiencing stress, especially if the veteran is struggling with PTSD or moral pain. Pay attention to the needs of the family.
Perhaps one of the best things that churches can offer veterans is authentic Christian community. Many soldiers experience strong bonds of friendship and trust among their fellow comrades-in-arms in very intense, difficult environments. You will not duplicate these relationships, but modeling a community that cares and offers mutual support can help veterans increase resilience and successfully re-enter civilian life.
1. Which of the practical hospitality steps listed above do you feel drawn toward? Why? Are there any steps you would not be ready to take? Explain.
2. How does the thought of pacifists and veterans being together in a worshiping community make you feel? Explain.
3. Does your congregation model a pattern of community that would welcome new members or exclude them? Explain.
1 Consider This Perspective, Logan Mehl-Laituri, Dec. 7, 2012; http://loveboldly.net/maintain/tag/military-veterans/. See also: "How to Treat Veterans in Your Church," Logan Mehl-Laituri, Christianity Today, Nov. 12, 2012; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/november-web-only/how-to-treat-veterans-in-your-church.html.
2 Many of the points below come from personal conversations with veterans, some of whom are now pastors.
3 Welcome them Home, Help them Heal: Pastoral care and ministry with service members returning from war, Sippola, Blumenshine, Tubesing, Yancey, Whole Person Associates, 2009, p. 52.