When members of Minneapolis’s First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) decided to sponsor a series of conferences focused on important social issues not often discussed in churches and ministry settings, one topic felt essential. With suicide rates of Minnesota veterans the highest in the nation, and with a wide range of local experts eager to pitch in to improve the state of veteran mental health, they felt that the time was right to host a gathering that could bring together veterans, mental health professionals and lay leaders interested in making life better for members of the military.
“[We] took this as an, ‘Oh my God’ moment,’” recalled conference co-organizer and (FCC) member Lynda Lee, who has worked with veterans in St. Cloud’s VA program. “We decided that we all needed to be mobilizing help for this crisis. From the beginning, that’s been the impetus for this conference.”
Organizers looked for the most efficient ways to ensure the event, which was backed by the church’s philanthropic Wholeness Fund of FCC Minneapolis, was both relevant and inviting, according to FCC Associate Pastor Dan Adolphson. “We wanted to make this conference accessible beyond clergy, chaplains and professional ministry leaders,” he said. “We wanted to reach lay volunteers, too, members of a congregation who may not be trained counselors but may be involved in social ministry in their church. They may have opportunity to work with veterans on these issues. And we also wanted to make this event accessible to veterans themselves.”
The conference, named “Trauma and Its Aftermath: Moral Injury and Moral Meaning Making,” will be held May 13-14 at SpringHouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th Street, Minneapolis. The event is open to the public with a $25 per person registration fee. The keynote speaker is Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, PhD, a research professor of theology and culture and founding co-director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. Brock is also co-author of “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War,” which has been inspirational to many interested in the impact of war on soldiers.
“I read her book, and I realized that this was my calling,” Lee said. She explained that the concept of “moral injury” — or damage done to a person’s conscience or sense of morality, which is outlined in Brock’s book — helped her put the internal wounds of soldiers into clear relief. “Moral injury is probably the reason for the highest suicide rate among veterans,” Lee said.
Other conference presenters come from a wide range of backgrounds, including:
• Amy Blumenshine, co-author of “Welcome Them Home – Help Them Heal.”
• Musician and storyteller Timothy Frantzich.
• Paula Hart, President & CEO of Volunteers of America-Minnesota and Wisconsin.
• EMDR trainer and marriage and family therapist Michael (Mic) Hunter.
• Minnesota author and veteran Lanny Kuester.
• Catherine Madison, author of “The War Came Home With Him: A Daughter’s Memoir.”
• Paul Riedner, executive director, Veteran Resilience Project.
• Wendy Smith, VOA High School principal and arts educator.
• David Thompson, retired Navy chaplain and co-author of “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans.”
The conference will also feature a resource room, where community organizations offering assistance to veterans can offer information about their services. Community resource partners include Volunteers of America, ADAPT 4 U, the Ars Bellum Foundation, Pets Loyal 2 Vets, United Theological Seminary, Moon Palace Books and Veteran Resilience Project.
It can be hard to talk about moral injury or emotional trauma that is inspired by military service. Still, Adolphson and Lee both share the belief that healing comes from facing tough topics head on, with a focus on personal stories from veterans that they hope will facilitate important conversation among attendees.
“Broaching the conversation around trauma is hard,” Lee said. “It is very personal, very private. When ministers are confronted with some of these more profound stories, we wonder, ‘How can we create communities so these stories can be safely told and so we can help one another with the process of moving forward with healing?’”
“I wanted to specifically focus on the types of issues that we have a really hard time talking about in the church and in ministry,” Adolphson added.
Having these tough conversations is key right now, Lee said. Minnesota National Guard troops have had strong involvement in many recent wars and military actions, and she believes that that reality plays a role in the state’s high veteran suicide rate.
“Every day, there are 22 veteran suicides nationally,” Lee said. “And those are just the deaths reported to the military. I tend to think the actual number is higher than that. In every presentation, we will be opening up the forum to opportunities for attendees to describe and talk about what has happened and getting those experiences out in the open. That opportunity in itself is profoundly healing. It tells the listeners that they are not alone, that there are others out there who can lend their support.”
So far about 100 people have registered for the conference, but Adolphson said there is room for as many as 200.
The next conference in the FCC series will be held in early November 2016. The focus is mental illness, and will feature keynote speaker Rev. Sarah Griffith Lund PhD., author of “Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church.”
“The conference will have a wide variety of presenters around issues of mental illness,” Adolphson said.
Organizers will accept day-of registration for “Trauma and Its Aftermath: Moral Injury and Moral Meaning Making,” but would prefer participants to register online by May 12.