By the Rev. Leslie Stewart
My journey to priesthood has been, you might say, a little unconventional.
Prior to becoming ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2014, I had a 14-year career with the U.S. Air Force. I started in Special Ops, went to pilot training and then moved into training other pilots as an Aerospace Physiologist.
A crash course in trauma
My job also included investigating plane crashes, where I was exposed to loss on a regular basis.
That consistent trauma was exponentially amplified when I almost lost my now-husband (we were dating at the time and he was also in the Air Force) in a plane crash. He survived, but my commanding officer and other members of my unit didn’t. I was called upon to deliver the news to the surviving families that their loved ones had been killed.
That’s a job no one wants.
Survivor’s guilt is something I still struggle with, more than 20 years after that accident. That heartache never fully goes away, and it certainly tested my own faith.
When I planted Resurrection Episcopal Church, I knew I wanted to serve veterans. So many of my military friends stopped going to church because they had lost their faith in God.
Even more alarming is the rate of suicide among veterans – they are twice as likely to die of suicide than civilians. Veterans who lack spiritual function are even more likely to commit suicide.
I heard of a program started by Fr. Sean Steele, called Warrior Church. The program was specifically designed to help veterans and first responders find their way back to God through a nontraditional approach – a worship service built around a workout. I loved the concept, and, with Fr. Steele’s blessing, started the first satellite branch in Plano.
Not just any church
Warrior Church is not a typical church service. First of all, the service is informal, and it’s not held in a church. Our Warrior Church is held at a local gym, Mind & Body Fitness in Plano.
Veterans and first responders are a population of doers; it’s very difficult for us to sit still. Add to that are potential triggers for someone who has PTSD – feeling locked in, not being able to see all the exits, being in a large group. That makes sitting in a regular church service very uncomfortable for a lot of us.
Our hour-long service is wrapped around a 45-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. Trauma lives in the body, so by working out physically, we can release it. We have an opportunity to share our experiences in a small group, reflect and take Communion.
At the end of each service, our Warriors get an endorphin rush, and that helps repair their experience of God and community to help restore their faith.
Fortunately for those affected by trauma, there are a growing number of organizations making sure veterans receive the mental and emotional support they need to help prevent suicide.
Where Warrior Church steps in is helping heal moral injury. Moral injury is when you’ve seen or done something that damages your image of God or your sense of self as being good and loved by God. Those feelings of unworthiness can factor into feelings of depression, loneliness and hopelessness. Many have lost a sense of meaning.
Growing the ministry
We started Warrior Church in Plano in 2018, and I see an increasing need to reach not only veterans, but first responders as well. I was floored by this statistic: More first responders died from suicide in 2017 than from line-of-duty deaths. That’s staggering, and I believe we have a moral obligation to help those who put their lives on the line every single day to protect us.
Warrior Church Plano recently received a grant from Duke Divinity School to help grow Warrior Church here in North Texas and throughout the U.S. Our goal is to use Warrior Church as a model for other communities and churches to implement their own ministries to veterans and first responders.
I’m incredibly excited that part of that grant will enable me to train directly with Rita Brock this summer. This will help me become even better equipped to counsel those who suffer from moral injury.
Help us help others
This year in advance of Memorial Day, our May 19th Warrior Church service will benefit another North Texas-based veteran support group, 22KILL. We’re inviting the community to come and write letters to the children of veterans who have lost their lives to suicide, as well as pack survival kits for 22KILL’s Carry the Load team who will be part of the cross-country relay march in honor of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day is a time for us to remember those who died for our freedom, but there are many people still dying, right now, due to trauma they experienced while serving our country and our communities. We owe it to them to reach out and show our support. Come out May 19 and let them know how much you care. You can learn more on our Eventbrite page, our website or our Facebook page.