Founding and Sustaining a UU Military Support Group
Presenters: Lou Portella and Rev. Cynthia Kane, with Seanan Holland and David Pyle. Sponsored by the GA Planning Committee.
Unitarian Universalists always have been an integral part of our nation's military and Department of Defense. At the same time, many of our congregations want to be more welcoming to their military and Department of Defense members and their families but don't know how. This presentation offered practical advice about successfully founding and sustaining a group to provide fellowship and support for our active duty servicemen and women, reservists, veterans and their families. Presenters also spoke about integrating that group and its members into the life of the congregation and the larger community. The presentation also allowed participants to learn about the new on-base Great Lakes Military Ministry Project at the Navy's basic training center near Chicago.
Lou Portella, ET1 (ret.), U.S. Navy, is the cofounder and current co-chair of UUniforms, a military support group based in the Unitarian Church of Norfolk (Unitarian Universalist), in Norfolk, Virginia.
In the two years since it was founded, UUniforms has grown to 75 members and has become an important and integrated part of the congregation—approximately 250 members and 100 pledge units—and the larger community. This workshop was intended, in part, to offer practical advice about successfully founding and sustaining a similar group for support and fellowship in another congregation, and to serve as an initial offer to expand UUniforms as an umbrella group to other parishes and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Uuniforms' motto is "Serving Conscience and Country," and its goals are:
- To help our men and women in uniform express their opinions in an atmosphere of diversity and acceptance. This freedom is not available for them when in uniform.
- To find those associated with the military who are of liberal faith and show them that Unitarian Church of Norfolk can indeed be a caring, supportive spiritual home for them.
- To help our congregation and other local Unitarian Universalist congregations learn how to better support and understand UU military members, veterans, families, and Department of Defense employees and contractors.
- To be an effective voice for liberal religious and ethical values within today's military.
If you are thinking of forming a UUniforms or similar group, the first question you may want to answer is "Who are your military UUs in your congregation and how many are there?" Remember that congregational members related to the military include anyone who:
- is serving or has ever served in the Armed Forces, Reserves, or any National Guard Unit;
- is or has been employed by the Department of Defense;
- works or has worked as a Defense Contractor;
- is a military chaplain candidate; or
- has a family member in any of the above categories.
To determine how well your congregation is recognizing and integrating your military members, ask:
- Do you formally keep in touch with deployed members (care packages, letters of support, and copies of church newsletters/orders of services/sermons)?
- Are they mentioned in services? A Book of Life?
- Do you formally recognize them when they return from overseas?
- Does your congregation have Veterans Day and/or Memorial Day services?
UUniforms of Norfolk identifies three important groups in need of service: its members, its members' families, and its community (church and wider). Its support activities range from sending care packages and letters overseas, to providing child care for members' families when they need to take care of business, to taking care of the landscaping at the church for two months every year.
The UUniforms suggested toolbox for success includes knowing your people, knowing your group (how they work together), and choosing a leadership structure that works for you and can grow with your group and needs.
Presenters also shared some of the pitfalls Uuniforms have encountered and the lessons they have learned thus far:
- Don't try to do too much, too soon.
- Always stay engaged!
- A need to do more for veterans support.
- Website issues (be sure you're secure!).
This article was originally published on General Assembly 2008.