(This story first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)
A regiment of army reservists can soon expect to have greater access to mental health services with the launch this fall of a new ministry in the diocese of Edmonton.
On November 10, Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Edmonton will hold its second Pre-Remembrance Day healing service, an opportunity for people affected by war to share their experiences and pray together. The service will also include the inauguration of a new church ministry-an outreach program serving the mental health and other needs of the South Alberta Light Horse, a reserve regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“People come back from war, and from serving, with injuries. Sometimes you can see the injuries and sometimes you can’t,” says Archdeacon Chris Pappas, rector of Holy Trinity. “Our hope is to help people who’ve suffered traumatic stress in combat…whether it’s post-traumatic stress, whether it’s anguish over what they did, or what they saw.”
Part of the reason for the ministry is the fact that since reservists don’t live on-base, mental health and other programs available to people in the Regular Force are not as accessible to them, he says.
Soldiers may also be reluctant to take advantage of these services because of the stigma attached to mental illness. “Sometimes they’re worried about their career ending if they step forward, but it doesn’t make the issue go away,” Pappas says. “They’re still affected…and often it will affect their lives at home.”
But since services offered through the Holy Trinity ministry will be independent of those offered through the military, they will not end up on soldiers’ records, he says.
Like many units in the Regular Force, the South Alberta Light Horse has served overseas-including in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. For many of its members, the experience has been scarring-not just outwardly, but inwardly as well, Pappas says. “You can’t go out and be asked to kill, or see people killed, or see the atrocities of war, and not come back changed, or hurt, and hurting,” he says. These inner wounds, he says, can harm the reservists’ relationships with their spouses and children, or may result in increased alcohol use, for example. Their effects can also disrupt the reservists’ finances, he says. The hope is that the ministry will take a multi-pronged or holistic approach, offering a range of services including psychological counselling, pastoral visits, art therapy, financial advice and possibly also social gatherings for reservists to attend with their families.
Part of this work will be taken on by staff at Holy Trinity and its partners in the ministry-its sister Lutheran parish a few blocks away, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church; the university chaplaincy at the University of Alberta; and the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action, a non-profit organization for educating the public about Alberta’s various faith traditions.
Volunteers will assume other work. Third- party providers, whose fees the program is expected to be able to subsidize, will also be tapped.
The ministry’s annual budget is around $15,000, with $8,000 contributed by Holy Trinity and $7,000 in the form of a grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada.
Holy Trinity will report back to the foundation at the end of the next two years, and depending on the results of the ministry, another $7,000 will be extended for each of those two additional years, Pappas says.
Canon Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada, said the foundation had approved Holy Trinity’s request because they believed the church was “extending their impact in the community and meeting a very real need of chaplaincy to reservists.”
Holy Trinity’s outreach to the reservists, Rois added, was “a unique ministry that speaks to the innovation that the parish is engaged in as they live the gospel in their community.” She praised the many ways the ministry plans to make “physical and emotional space” to address the challenges experienced by those who have served in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Haiti.
The ministry, Pappas says, represents just one of a number of recent attempts to renew a long-standing relationship between Holy Trinity and the South Alberta Light Horse. The regiment-in a variety of different permutations-has been in existence for about 100 years, he says, and Holy Trinity has been its regimental church for most of that time. Rectors of the church historically have tended to be chaplains of the unit, and at least one served with the regiment overseas during the First World War. Regimental colours hang in the church’s nave. In the late 20th century, Pappas says, the relationship fell dormant.
Then, seven years ago, when he himself had just become its rector, he was approached by the unit’s commander about renewing ties. Pappas liked the idea, and held a special Remembrance Day service at the church the next year. Over time, the event would grow in popularity, from a couple of hundred people in its first year to 500 people ast year-more than the church could hold, Pappas says.
The services try to avoid triumphalism, he says; they’re about recognizing the sacrifices of soldiers, but also a solemn reflection on the failure of societies to preserve peace.
The November 10 healing service was begun as an attempt to further demonstrate to the regiment that the parish honours its sacrifices and wants to care for its soldiers, he says. It invites people-civilians as well as soldiers-to speak before the congregation on their experience with war and how it has affected them, “to connect with their pain and offer it up to God for their healing,” Pappas says.
The idea of the new ministry, Pappas says, arose from talks he had with the commander and chaplain about what more Holy Trinity could do to support the regiment. Mental health and healing have always come up in these talks, he says.
Pappas says the soldiers of the South Alberta Light Horse are excited about the new program. “They appreciate the fact that we care,” says. “That really is a large portion of what helps-they know that we’re thinking about them, that we care and we’re doing what we can to help them out.” The regiment has about 120 people.