AnnAliese Harry explains why new families, particularly military families, need to be welcomed in the parish.
My most recent memorable conversion moment happened in the middle of the night during my husband’s deployment. I was suffering from insomnia during that time he was gone, I was parenting my oldest, and while living in an area of the country with millions around me, felt extremely isolated. One night, while lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, I got the desire to go peruse my bookshelves. I’m a proud bibliophile and had many faith-based books on my shelf that were collected with the intention of reading them whenever I get the chance. My eye flickered to a book that I had owned for years, yet had never gotten around to reading.
That deployment, I read Our Lady of Kibeho by Imaculée Ilibagiza in two days’ time. I felt the loneliness in my heart subside, I felt the closeness to the Lord, and I felt truly in passionate love with His gentle embrace. Diving deeper into my faith during that deployment helped sustain me during those endless nights which I experienced insomnia. I returned to Adoration, even going so far as to pay a young girl to watch my son once a month so that I could have a “date with our Lord.”
I had already thrown myself into volunteering at the local military chapel, but then I also joined some Bible studies at a local Catholic church which not only provided childcare during their meetings, but also allowed me to be spiritually fed, while I helped feed others. It was a routine that I continued until after deployment, when family obligations and a post-deployment pregnancy forced me to take a slight step back from all the commitments I had undertaken when I was filling the void of having my partner in a war zone on the other side of the world.
Fast forward a few years and we all know the United States shut down in mid-spring of 2020 due to the pandemic. Our children left school for spring break, had the weeklong break extended by a week, and then they never went back to in-person learning the rest of the school year. It felt as though life changed for everyone – and, I would dare say life changed at least a little bit … for everyone.
However, one thing that was unchanged were the needs of the military. My husband’s upcoming move was not cancelled. Instead, in the midst of a country not even opening back up yet, we hit the road to travel from one side of the country to the other. We literally could not have traveled any farther from one end of military installations to the other, while remaining in the contiguous United States. When we arrived at our new home, everything was quiet, shut down for protection, and lonely.
As we settled into our new home, our new jobs, and for my children, our new schools, I started to realize that this move was bittersweet. We didn’t get a regular goodbye with friends in one state, nor had anyone reached out for what is a standard and typical hello. It’s been a full year, and one of my children has made a friend – one friend in a cohort class. Both of them are military children. In a full year, neither my husband nor I have met anyone with which to gather socially, outside of work.
When I was considering the ways in which I have connected at previous military installations – whether with people on the installation, or off – I realized just how strongly I use my faith to guide my connections. I draw upon the church to help me find my people. For years, I have predominantly found people with whom to connect at military chapels, but I have also found wonderful friendships through civilian Catholic churches.
Wherever the Army has planted our family, I have tried to be dedicated to the needs of that community.
Over a month ago, I heard someone say nonchalantly, “People have said that we aren’t going to waste our time on recruiting military families for ministries, because they’re just going to move again, anyway.”
I was dumbfounded (and I have to admit, more than a little hurt). As I collected my jaw from the floor and stammered my way through reasons military families should be embraced by civilian Catholic churches, I remembered the article I had written previously for CatholicMom.com. In April 2018, I posted “Embracing the Military Family: 6 Steps to Welcoming Military Families into Your Parish Community.” Yet, when I went back to that article, I realized what was missing was the “why.”
Why should civilian Catholic churches embrace the transient military family?
Quite frankly because we, like all of God’s children, deserve to be welcomed. Like each person in all the churches throughout the world, we love our Lord and we desire that intimacy, relationship, and community that comes from having a “church home.”
Most military families understand that part of nurturing, fostering, and growing community means they have to put forth the effort to attend events, sign up for ministries and/or religious education, and get involved. They are usually ready, willing, and capable of providing assistance …
But most of them wait for the simple invitation to get involved.
Most of them don’t want to come in and make radical changes. They just want to be asked to help in a specific, deliberative, prayerful manner. And, when they aren’t invited, they will go somewhere else where they do feel encouraged to participate.
Military families understand we don’t have much time at any given place – the average active duty military family still moves every three to five years. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, military families were still being moved around the world. Since we know we don’t have much time, we dedicate our energy to time well-spent.
While there may be differing political ideals, while there may be fundamental ideological beliefs regarding morality of the Servicemembers’ military service, and while there may be even the mere personality clashes, most military families have a solid faith foundation and are ready to share their love for Christ with others, and yearn to be spiritually fed.
Most military families know how to jump into service and ministries with our feet first. Knowing we don’t have much time doesn’t make volunteering easy, but it does make it intentional. Most of us will spend our time volunteering to make the world around us a better place, for as long as the military deems appropriate. Then, we will move on and hopefully “rinse and repeat” with the next move.
At the end of the day, we are like any other brand-new family to a church – looking for connection and community.
Many of us landing in your church have children who are trying to find a new, similarly-minded group with whom to connect. Others who don’t have children may be eager to find connection with newly-married couples, or even unmarried young adults, since they are on their own for the very first time in their lives. Still others may be struggling, having moved from ailing parents, and now in a new place, with a deployed spouse, and their faith dangling by a thread.
There are duty assignments that might see a random active-duty military family in your pews when you don’t even have a military installation within a couple hours’ drive. Those assignments are called “remote duty” assignments. They many not even have an opportunity to find a supportive group of other military families. For those living close to a military installation, there are any number of reasons (have you ever seen what installation housing looks like at many posts and bases?) why those individuals may choose to not live near the military installation and get involved in military chapel communities, which leaves them searching for a faith community into which they may channel their love, their energy, and their talents.
We might not be in your faith community for decades, but I guarantee that civilian parishes throughout the country who do not make it a point to welcome these families are missing out on the vibrant engagement that military families have to offer.
I firmly believe God places my family in duty stations and parts of this world for a direct reason. Part of that reason is to build up the Body of Christ in the churches in which my family attends.
As such, even if I don’t feel necessarily welcomed on day one, I still do my utmost best to get involved. Yet my children know when I have to fight my way into the groups that formed years ago. They see the exclusion and they see the disconnect from what they are taught about being kind, welcoming, and gracious to everyone, and watching a community of believers not extend that teaching to my own family.
And, I acknowledge I am an outlier in some ways. I will continue to come back and try again … week after week, until I have either found or created a community of faith-based support. Not too many people who feel unwelcomed will continue to try.
So, this is a plea from one writer to those of you seeing new faces and families in your parish this summer – whether those new faces are military or not – reach out, extend that welcome, and invite them into the life of your parish.
I know in my heart that your parish life will be rewarded for the effort.
Copyright 2021 AnnAliese Harry
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About the Author
AnnAliese Harry is a proud Army wife to her husband Chris, and a mother to their young children. She has a BA in History, a Masters in Social Work, and has worked with disabled veterans, troubled teens, and in early childhood intervention therapy. AnnAliese volunteers with several military chapel communities and serves as a lector, EMHC, Adoration coordinator, and Catholic Women of the Chapel (CWOC) chapter president and vice president. She blogs about Catholicism, parenting, and military life at A Beautiful, Camouflaged Mess of A Life. Follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, or on Facebook.