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About the UU Worship Service at the Great Lakes Naval Station

As I was completing a paper on an experiment in worship education that was conducted in the UU Worship Service at the Navy Basic Training at Great Lakes, I realized it contained my most extensive analysis of the experience of that worship service over the last 3 years.  Now that I am no longer the leader/minister of that service (thank you SG for taking over!), I thought it might be good to share my analysis/reflection of that service, and of basic training as a whole.  I hope it inspires thought in you!

The setting for this worship service is the Great Lakes Naval Station Memorial Chapel, at the Recruit Training Command (RTC) of the Great Lakes Naval Station, just north of Chicago IL. CLF Military Ministries, in coordination with the Meadville Lombard Theological School and the Unitarian Church of Evanston IL provides a UU Worship Service for the basic training recruits each Sunday at 9am. Recruits have a choice of over 30 worship services at the chapel between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. The Unitarian Universalist Service is one of these service offerings.

Approximately 40,000 recruits come through the RTC each year, with approximately 500-1000 of those recruits attending at least 1 UU worship service during their time at the base. Many of the recruits who attend the UU Worship service feel religiously marginalized in one way or another. Many identify as some form of Pagan or Wiccan, although the definition of what this is varies greatly. Many others are seekers, or currently have no religious identification at all. A significant number of the recruits who attend this service are what I term “religious explorers”. They might have a religious tradition they identify with, but are taking the opportunity of more than 30 worship services in a single location to learn what other faiths do and believe.

Basic training is an intentionally created stressful experience. Often, it is the first time in the lives of many of the recruits that they have been placed under this particular kind or intensity of stress. Recruits are placed under seemingly impossible expectations. Many of the beliefs about themselves and the world around them are intentionally challenged. The personal sense of identity that they bring with them to basic training is also challenged, and a new communal identity is overlaid on top of it. They are yelled at, put under physical stresses (such as hard work-outs and time in a tear-gas chamber and a fire fighting simulator), as well as emotional stresses. For many recruits, it is the first time they have been away from home, or slept in a room with others, or showered in a room with others.

Many recruits also face stresses that extend from home. It is a time when many relationships end, including romantic ones. It is a time when families experience illnesses and stresses, and the recruit cannot help or be involved in the resolutions of those stresses. Families also feel the loss of their recruit, and so phone calls home often turn into the family’s opportunity to share all of those stresses with the recruit, thinking that in this way they are keeping that connection live and vibrant. Actually, this adds to the stress the recruit is feeling.

The intention of all of this stress is to bring the recruit to a personal crisis point, to a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) moment of decision, when the recruit either buckles under the pressure and stress, or finds the spiritual resources within themselves to cope with the stress and drive on with the “mission”. This is an important survival skill for anyone who is in military service, as well as a necessity to protect the lives of those who depend upon them. If a recruit is unable to find this strength within them, then it is best both for the recruit and the Navy that they be sent home, to find a productive life in the civilian world.

Science Fiction writer and U.S. Navy veteran Robert Heinlein might have put it best, in his book Starship Troopers in this letter excerpt, sent from a fictional military veteran to a young recruit in basic training:
“You are now going through the hardest part of your service-not the hardest physically (though physical hardship will never trouble you again; you now have its measure), but the hardest spiritually… the deep, soul-turning readjustments and re-evaluations necessary to metamorphize a potential citizen to one in being. Or, rather I should say: you have already gone through the hardest part, despite all the tribulations you still have ahead of you and all the hurdles, each higher than the last, which you still must clear. But it is that “hump” that counts – and, knowing you, lad, I know that I have waited long enough to be sure that you are past your “hump” – or you would be home now.

When you reached that spiritual mountaintop you felt something, a new something. Perhaps you haven’t words for it (I know I didn’t, when I was a boot). So perhaps you will permit an older comrade to lend you the words, since it often helps to have discrete words. Simply this: The noblest fate that a person can endure is to place their own mortal body between their loved home and war’s desolation.”

That “hump” is the purpose of basic training… to bring recruits to the place where they have to make the choice to continue onward, and to find the strength within to do that.

The UU Worship service at Great Lakes is designed with this specific concept in mind. Its focus on community and group responsibility reinforces this message, while at the same time providing a place where the stresses are temporarily eased, where recruits can take stock of themselves and of their lives. Through a practice of Joys and Sorrows, recruits are able to find a safe space to share those stresses, and to realize that others are facing them as well. Through an atmosphere of fellowship, they are able to not be yelled at for a brief time. Through specific parts of the liturgy that call them to remember their personal identity, they are able to find a way to stay connected with that individual identity, while learning a new communal identity. In conversation with recruits who are further along in the process, and with those who have recently graduated, they are able to see that there is an end in sight, that there is a way through the stresses they are feeling, and to get an idea what that way may be.

There were two unexpected results of the UU worship service at Great Lakes. The first was that this became a profound experience for the seminarians and lay-leaders who present worship with the recruits in the meaning and practice of pastoral ministry. The second, and more profound, is that the service became a place of solace for the recruits who did not make it “over the hump”, who for one reason or another were being sent home.

A significant portion of the recruits who attend basic training do not actually complete the training, for many reasons. In some cases, the reason is medical, the recruit may have been injured in some way or may have a medical problem that was undiagnosed that prevents them from continuing. In many cases, the recruit may not have the emotional or spiritual resources to make it through the stresses of basic training. This is an important realization, both for the Navy and for the recruit. In the controlled environment of basic training the inability to find those spiritual and emotional resources is usually not fatal (though suicides and training deaths can be attributed to this annually). In service and in combat, the inability to find those resources can often be fatal for both the service member and those who depend on them. It is necessary for both the military and for the recruit that an aspect of basic training be this filtering and assessing.

However, one reality of military service is that military bureaucracy, like all bureaucracy, is slow. It takes weeks, sometimes months to separate a recruit from the military. During this time, the recruit is not able to continue training, and so is in a holding pattern, a form of limbo while their military fate and future is decided. They have limited say in this. Some, especially those in medical hold, may be allowed to continue their training. Others who are “failing to adapt to military life” are simply waiting till all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed so they can go home. They are segregated from other recruits, and often required to wear a different uniform that signals they are in this holding status.

The UU service, in being non-judgmental, not focused solely on the Navy experience, and calling forth liberal-faith principles has served as a place of solace for these recruits. They are the second largest and most regular constituency for the UU worship service, coming only behind the Pagans and Wiccans.

Yours in faith,

 David

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