Unitarian Universalist church’s oral history project opens up conversations about military service.
U.S. Army Sgt. Christian Isely (shown here as a Private in 2006) with his father, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Chris Isely, a member of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Ill. The church recently completed an oral history project documenting the stories of veterans in the congregation. (© Meredith Haydon)
No one knew for sure how many military veterans were in the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Ill., before Margaret Shaklee started her project. Turns out there were at least 17. Shaklee, the church archivist, set out in January 2008 to tell their stories as a way to make sure they felt welcome. Even though many had been there for decades, it was a way to let the congregation know these men—and they were all men—were in their midst and that their stories were worth acknowledging.
Transcribing their stories into her laptop, one interview at a time, often after church, she created a small booklet from the stories. A year ago, at a worship service on Memorial Day weekend, the booklets were passed out to congregants. The service that Sunday was led by U.S. Army Chaplain Candidate David Pyle, the congregation’s then-ministerial intern. Part of the service was devoted to the men’s stories.
Members of the congregation, and the men themselves, were moved, said Shaklee. “One man used the book as an opportunity to talk with his family about his experiences for the first time. Other people said we should have done this years ago. Several told me, ‘Gee, I didn’t realize we had any veterans in the congregation.’”
The project came about for two reasons. Pyle, a student at Meadville Lombard Theological School, had approached Shaklee. “He and I had a conversation about how welcome, or unwelcome, veterans and active military personnel felt in our congregation,” she said. “At times we can be rabidly antiwar even though we try to make a distinction between war and the people who serve in wartime.”
Shaklee also remembered another incident. Shaklee said years ago there was a discussion at church about Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five, which is about a soldier’s experiences during World War II. “A fellow who was a veteran of that war shared some of his experiences and then let us know he usually felt like he had to leave that part of himself at the door—that it wasn’t OK to talk about it in such an antiwar environment.”
“Well, I don’t believe any part of ourselves should be left at the door,” Shaklee said. “We decided one of the best things we could do was to lift up the veterans among us by telling their stories.”
It took Shaklee five months to do the interviews and create the book. One of those she interviewed was Chris Isely.
Isely, contacted last week, said he didn’t talk much about his experiences in Vietnam when he joined the church back in the 1970s. “I never got any great grief for being military [he went on to serve 25 years as a Naval Reservist] but it was never much of a topic of discussion. It was clear the church was very antiwar.”
There was a different tone at UCE when his son, Christian, served in Iraq in recent years, he said. “The church opposed the war, but gave Christian great support.”
He added, “I think this is a great project. Nobody had ever asked me the range of questions that Margaret did.” This year on Memorial Day weekend Isely was scheduled to give the sermon at UCE, including references to his father’s World War II service, and to his son’s service in Iraq. “Margaret’s project, this week’s sermon, and the remarks that I made at a peace rally recently all serve to help those who have never had military experience understand those experiences.”
Another UCE member, Will Van Dyke, was in the Army for 17 months in 1969-70, becoming a conscientious objector during that time. “Because of that, sometimes I’m reluctant to think of myself as a vet,” he said. “But we all have different stories. There were people at church who didn’t know my story. I’m sure this project created more understanding of veterans.”
Pyle was moved by the stories. “They were profound,” he said. “These experiences deeply affected the lives of these men. In many cases their military experience was the foundation of their later life. And that worship service and the book began to create another level of stories—‘Well, I didn’t serve, but my father did, and here’s what he told me.’ Now these stories are a part of the life of the church. I’d like to see every congregation do this.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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