Chelan church welcomes vets with vacation-retreat
The Rev. Paul Palumbo of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church might seem to be an unlikely person for a ministry of welcoming veterans home and forgiving them, to release them from what he calls the “moral injury” they carry because of what they did in war.
That and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome often make veterans disqualify themselves from enjoying their lives, he said.
His church’s Honorable Welcome Home program is a new twist to his commitment to social justice and peacemaking.
“It’s ironic that God is calling me into this ministry. I always have said, ‘Don’t send anyone to war,’ but I had not welcomed vets back,” Paul said.
Simply in celebrating the vets and liking them, the people of Chelan open them to forgiveness.
“When we started, we did not know the profound effect that would have. We just thought it was a nice idea,” said Paul.
Now he believes peacemaking includes both resistance to war and welcoming veterans back without blaming them.
Paul has also been doing a weekly peace and justice witness. At noon every Friday since Sept. 11, 2001, he has stood with one or two others outside the Lake Chelan post office with signs inviting people to work and pray for peace.
Sometimes others join them.
“At first, the community did not know what to do with us,” he said. “Now I invite people to come pray with us for peace. People come and go.”
Paul helped his church start the Honorable Welcome Home program to give veterans the welcome home they may not yet have experienced.
Paul said the idea for the welcoming program for veterans came to him after two friends visited one summer to hike in the Cascades and enjoy the area. One stayed eight days.
One friend was burned out from his work as a pastor and the other from work in affordable housing. After they went home, their wives called to thank Paul for the healing they saw in their husbands.
Then Paul met a member’s son-in-law, an army chaplain in Iraq, and began thinking about inviting veterans to come for vacation-retreats.
“He needed what I had done with my friends, but was not ready for the idea,” Paul said. “He was still in the thick of it.”
Paul shared the idea with a Vietnam vet, who said Iraq vets are “too hot in the fight-or-flight mode and need to wait.”
Two years ago, a therapist in Wenatchee referred three Iraq vets. Only one stayed. The therapist suggested working with Vietnam vets. Paul said that for Vietnam vets, it has been 40 years and they are ready to accept the possibility of hospitality.
“They are still processing their experience, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and moral injury,” he said.
Partnering with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), American Legion and the community, Lake Chelan Lutheran Church has developed a process for bringing three to six vets at a time to a house in Chelan to “enjoy five days on us,” Paul said.
Members of the church and community provide funds so vets can take the Lady of the Lake to Stehekin, go to a spa for a massage, go fishing, visit a winery, go out to dinner and more.
“Chelan merchants celebrate the vets as human beings, giving them the welcome they deserved when they came home,” he said.
Paul told of three Vietnam vets coming with their spouses.
“The spouses were like lenses to help us see things,” he said.
For example, after tasting wine at the winery, the owner gave each a bottle and said, “Thank you for your service.” One wife said, “This never happens. It was a powerful moment.”
A woman in the community heard about the project and offered a second house she had. When she had to sell it, someone else donated a house to use.
Now a team of people from the church helps each time. One woman, who is the age of Vietnam vets, is hostess and enjoys bantering with them.
Six groups of four vets have come through. The opportunities are offered three times a year.
“It’s expensive. We can’t ask merchants to provide dinner every time if it’s too frequent,” Paul said. “It costs about $2,000 for each event, and we don’t want the veterans to pay for anything.
“We stumbled on this program as a way to bring incredible healing, especially healing for moral injury,” he said. “Many did things and have told no one, because they consider what they did so horrible that people would hate them. They do not think they are allowed to go out and enjoy life or do things that many others take for granted.”
For many, it’s the first time they have done such activities since returning.
One vet recently told his therapist he felt the best he had felt in years, Paul said. After the five days in Chelan, he began to invite people to his home for dinner. It was the first time anyone had come to his house except his family.
Paul, who has been pastor in Chelan for 15 years, came after serving 10 years as Lutheran pastor of an African American church in Durham, N.C.
He grew up in Maryland and served a church in North Carolina after seminary.
When he was called to the church in Chelan, he found a 60-year-old congregation with riches.
Benedictines flood the church with prayer. Musicians share their talents. Church members help at a teen center, a tutoring program, the food bank and the Habitat for Humanity store.
Paul said there are many teachers. Several members who are contractors choose to build affordable housing.
There are 12 other churches in the community of 5,000 people, which doubles in the summer and has many empty homes in the winter. While many go South, a few couples in the church are now staying in the area all year.
The common thread of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church’s ministries is caring for people on the margins, Paul said.
Last year, the therapist in Wenatchee invited Paul to speak at an annual banquet that gathers veterans.
“When I finished talking, a line of men came up crying, saying they could not believe God could forgive them for what they did,” Paul said.
“Yes, God can,” he told a vet, grabbing his shoulders and repeating, “Yes, God forgives you. Your sins are forgiven.”
He said many vets just need forgiveness.
Paul told of a man he met 20 years ago in Durham. The man wanted nothing to do with the church, but came for Christmas and Easter with his wife. Five years later, the wife invited Paul to come to their home and visit her husband. He went, but talked only with the wife. Two years later, the man called and invited him to come.
He showed Paul a room that was a shrine to his best friend. They had been waiting for a helicopter to pick them up to go home, but a sniper killed his friend. The man went berserk, saying and doing “horrible things.”
His wife realized he needed to confess it, to tell someone.
“To give the word and truth of forgiveness reassures that whatever you have done can be forgiven. It is a powerful force,” Paul said.
“We have to be willing to go with people, to hear the horrible stuff they did and not pass judgment,” he said. “I’m still unsure what happens, but I know that the vets have said their lives are more open and they are able to do more, enjoy more.
“We simply use the church’s power to forgive to help veterans know they are welcomed home,” he said.
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