I have received multiple requests for copies of the homily that I presented at the UUA Pacific Southwest District Assembly this year, and instead of continuing to email it out, I thought I would publish it here at Celestial Lands. The task was to reflect on what “Beyond Borders” meant to me and my ministry”. It was an honor to be asked to preach, as one of the new ministers to the District.
One of my first forays into District lay-leadership after I became a Unitarian Universalist was to an event celebrating the kickoff of a campaign of billboards and radio advertisements for Unitarian Universalism, being sponsored by the UU Congregations of the Greater Houston area. The keynote speaker was Rev. Bill Sinkford, then the president of the UUA. I had just been accepted to seminary, and had just begun to imagine what ministry might mean for me.
After the speech that Rev. Sinkford gave, the group formed a receiving line, so that everyone could get a chance to meet him. When it came time to introduce myself, I told him that my name was David Pyle, and that I had just been accepted to seminary.
That was when one of my friends and fellow lay-leaders from our congregation on Galveston Island said “What he’s not telling you is that David is thinking about becoming a military chaplain.”
The crowd immediately around us became silent.
Then, Rev. Sinkford’s eyes began to tear up, and he took my hand. He told me that only a few weeks before, his son had written him from where he was serving as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan. His son had written him asking why it was that every other soldier he knew could find a chaplain from his or her faith tradition… everyone except young Billy Sinkford.
The letter said “I need a chaplain dad… and I don’t have one”.
As I walked back to my table, still in the intensity of that story a young woman stepped in front of me. I do not remember much else about her, other than the large peace symbol that she wore around her neck.
She said, in a loud voice, “I don’t see how you can call yourself a UU and be willing to serve in the military”.
I was asked to reflect on what borders I have crossed in my life and in my ministry. Traveling around the world for the military I’ve crossed a lot of borders. I grew up an Army brat, and lived overseas before I was 8 years old. I joined the Army at 18, and served in 5 foreign countries by the time I was 24. I was one of the first members of my family from the Tennessee hills to earn a bachelor’s degree. I left the world of National Security and Intelligence when my conscience would no longer allow me to do that work, and found my way from Intelligence Analyst to peace activist. And yet, with all of that, I think the most difficult border I have crossed is one I now have to cross on a regular, sometimes daily basis… and that is the border between Unitarian Universalism and the young women and men and the families of the U.S. Military.
I am a reserve military chaplain, one of only 8 Unitarian Universalist Ministers serving as military chaplains in the Reserves, National Guard, or on Active Duty, including Chaplain Seanan Holland, a UU Minister of our District currently serving as a Chaplain with the Marines in Afghanistan.
At the moment, I am the only UU minister serving both in the military, and in full-time congregational ministry, as the Assistant minister for our congregation in Ventura, California. I love our congregations… my first love in ministry was with lay-led fellowships. I have met many military veterans in the over 40 congregations I’ve had the privilege to preach in, many of whom had never felt that it was safe to tell their congregations the stories of their military service, for fear that they would no longer be accepted within our faith.
“How can you be a UU and be willing to serve in the military”she asked me…
In my military ministry, with the 349th Combat Support Hospital in Bell, California, I serve a far more young adult and multi-cultural ministry than I have found within Unitarian Universalism. The majority of my soldiers are people of color. My Hospital Commander is a Latina woman. My Company Commander is an African American woman. Many of my soldiers are Asian American, African American, Hispanic or Latino, European American, Indian American, and a few with Native American ancestry, such as myself. A few are not yet Americans, as serving in the U.S. military is one way that people seek to earn U.S. Citizenship.
I minister with people who are Baptist, Evangelical, Buddhist, Spiritual but not religious, Jewish, Catholic… just about every religious faith you can imagine. I even have one devotee of the Flying Spaghetti Monster…
He loved that I knew what he was talking about, and showed me his dogtags that say “FSM” in the line for Religious Preference.
I have soldiers who are straight, and soldiers who are just now exploring how safe it is to be public about being Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual.
When I am ending my ministerial career hopefully some 25 years from now, one of the things I will be most proud of is the minor role I was able to play in implementing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t tell, and being able to sign an official copy of the repeal “Chaplain David Pyle”. Crossing borders will sometimes allow a person of our faith to be in the right place, at the right time, in order to make a difference in larger events.
And yet, when my soldiers ask me what faith, what denomination I am ordained by, I have to admit to you I am often hesitant to tell them. Not because I’m worried about what they may think about Unitarian Universalism… quite frankly most of them have no idea who we are. No, what worries me is that my soldiers, having built relationship with me, will then go and visit a Unitarian Universalist church that is not yet ready to welcome them… not yet ready step away from some of our own pre-conceptions and meet them not as their uniforms… but as the people within them. Not yet ready to know how to welcome and be sensitive to their families.
Just as there are closeted veterans within our churches, there are closeted Unitarian Universalists within the military. I meet them all the time, and in almost every case it is a story similar to mine. On a Sunday morning when they were visiting one of our churches, during coffee hour, or in conversation before worship, someone finds out about their military service and challenges their right to be within our faith community. I had the blessing of already being within a loving, welcoming community when it happened to me. For these soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardians and marines and their families… they simply leave and never come back.
I am saying this to you today, because I do not believe that this experience of our faith is one that relates to the military alone. We have borders around the faith of Unitarian Universalism. I’m not going to recite all of them… I believe most of you know what borders are around our faith just as well as I do. In order to take down those borders, we have to do the work of understanding our own pre-conceptions and prejudices, and of learning the meaning of Radical Hospitality. The kind of hospitality and welcoming that steps beyond our own fears and needs, if just for a moment, in order to welcome someone, anyone, in the fullness of who they are.
That is hard, hard work. Let me tell you why it is important, at least in relationship to the military. If there is anywhere in this world that I pray for more people who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person it is in the military and on the battlefield.
If there is anywhere in this world that I pray for more people who believe in the right of conscience it is in the military, and on the battlefield.
If there is anywhere in this world that I pray for more people who see that we are all connected in an interdependent web… that every action that is taken affects everyone else and everything else around us… I pray for those people to be in the military, and on the battlefield.
If we are going to have soldiers, if we are going to give that kind of power and responsibility to anyone… then I would rather that as many of those people as possible be Unitarian Universalists. Not because I want to grow our faith… but because I want to save the world. And part of that is making sure that, as long as we have a military, that it be as in tune with the values and principles of Unitarian Universalism as I, as we, can make it. So may it be… Amen.