Friday, June 17, 2005

UU and the Military

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

- Third Principle of
Unitarian Universalism

In the summer of 2003 I attended the Pacific Coast District (of the UUA) Leadership School in Alamo, California. It was a fantastic experience, during which I learned a lot about myself and relating to others in a cooperative, collaborative setting. I also began to see another side of the challenge of being a military UU.

Early on in the week-long school, I met a woman who was quite enthralled that I was a Marine. She was so taken with it, in fact, that she started referring to me as “the Marine” whenever she saw me. This began to really bother me, as I did not want to be “labeled” for my military career, but met and known as another human, UU, and student.

That night during Closing Circle, I requested that people not identify me by my career, anymore than they identified Tom as “the doctor” or Julie as “the body shop owner.” Afterwards, one of the other students came up to me and said “I think it’s funny that you had to ‘come out’ as a Marine, but in this crowd, my being a gay man is totally accepted and unremarkable.” He was right – it was funny. At the same time, however, it is also revealing of the inherent prejudices and opinions of many UUs.

I have found that a lot of older UUs – typically those who lived through and participated in the peace movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s - initially tend to be less accepting of me when they find out I’m in the military. Just as I am a black sheep as one of the very few UUs in the Marine Corps (less than 100 out of 178,000), I also often feel the same way as one of only about 500 active duty military members among 200,000 or so UUs.

Thankfully, I have never encountered any outright hostility from other UUs because of my military affiliation, but there have been some uncomfortable moments when I can see the “barriers of stereotype” come up between me and a person who has just learned I’m a Marine. Others’ reactions in such a situation typically vary from mild surprise to incredulity, and there are always questions about when and why I became a Marine, how long I’ve been a UU, and how that affects and is affected by my identity as a UU.

In particular, I can remember three specific times when I’ve met another UU who discovered that the person I am when she got to know me did not match her stereotyped preconception of who I would be as a Marine. One was a woman in my first congregation who is now a very dear friend, the second was a member of my Covenant Group at General Assembly (GA), and the third was the Starr King seminarian I wrote about in a previous post, “Words.” In all three cases, once these ladies were able to put aside their preconceptions about my attitudes, beliefs, and values, we were able to connect as humans and individuals sharing UU community, and it was enriching on both sides.

Being a military UU is not easy. I have been engaged in an ongoing search for reconciliation between my values and my profession since I became serious about Unitarian Universalism about three years ago. Think of the issues surrounding UUs and the military as two sides of a coin. On one side lies the internal challenge of personal reconciliation and integration – call it “the UU in the military”. On the other side of this coin is the closely related, external institutional challenge of how military UUs are perceived and accepted in our congregations, or “the military in UU.”

If our UU congregations are to be truly welcoming and accepting spiritual homes for all comers, then we as a movement should examine how we deal with military UUs. Do our congregations welcome military members? Are our congregants aware of the challenges facing military UUs? Are we willing to support our military members in their search for reconciliation of values and profession as well as a personal search for truth and meaning?

I have been fortunate to belong to two congregations with a tradition of military-affiliated members. Neither congregation has many active duty members, but both of them enfold many retired or former service men and women and DOD civilian employees. This tradition has set the stage for my acceptance by both congregations. From my brief experiences with other congregations and many conversations on the topic, however, I am concerned that this level of acceptance is uncommon, and in general awareness of military UU issues is low.

Fortunately I am not alone! At GA last summer, I was very fortunate to meet and bond with a small group of fellow military-affiliated UUs: Nancy, a Navy spouse, like me called to UU ministry; Ann, a DOD employee I know from my first congregation; and Dave, a Marine reservist who is going back to school. Ann had the tremendous idea of creating a GA program about these issues, and with a little bit of hard work, we are making her dream a reality for GA 2005. Our program will bring an active duty member, a UU chaplain, a UU military spouse, and a UU DOD civilian together as a panel to share their stories from both sides of the coin of UU and the military.

This GA program is just a starting point for other military UU’s to join in the conversation, and an outreach opportunity to increase the general level of awareness of military members in our congregations. In keeping with the ideal of using education to combat oppression, we see this effort as a first step toward full acceptance of all military UUs as individuals within our congregations.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Some of react niavely to Marines but then you're not just any old Marine, you're an Academy graduate, a pilot, a major, an 18 year veteran. These are some awesome achievements Greg. However, being a token anything is a tiresome responsibility.