By Joel Gunz
Hitting a different church each week can be addicting. Case in point: when, this last weekend, we took a trip to Mt. Hood’s Resort on the Mountain for a last gasp of fun in the snow, it would have been tempting—and forgivable—to skip our Sunday commitment. But as we drove into the vacation-cabin town of Welches, our home town for the duration, we passed an adorable log cabin with bingo! a cross on its wall and a sign: Church on the Mountain. We just couldn’t resist.
Which was for the best. What with it being Memorial Day weekend and all, this would have been the wrong weekend to take a vacation from our Beliefnet gig. So, regardless of how much we’d drunk while sitting by the pool the night before, we rallied the troops and tromped down to the local log cabin church. Glad we did.
Church on the Mountaineers are a salt-of-the-earth bunch. With close access to Mt. Hood’s abundant year-round recreational facilities—but very little local industry—Welches is a perfect spot to retire to, and that age demographic was well-represented in the pews. (Travel hint: when you tire of partying with the tourist crowd while traveling, go to church. Without a suburban sales manager to found, it was 100 percent local.) Of particular interest, though, was the number of military servicemen in the crowd. Of the seventy or so church members in attendance, about a dozen stood up to be recognized for their military service. All but one had a Navy pedigree—the ringer having served in Korea as a Marine.
Maybe it was their gray hair. Maybe it was a look in their eyes that hinted at their human decency in the proximity of weapons and even death. But this military representation brought me to a full stop.
As a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion that practices political neutrality, I had been taught to refuse to salute the flag, stand for the national anthem or even vote. Membership in the Cub Scouts, not to mention military service, was out of the question. As a result, I met very few members of our armed forces. When I did, they seemed like a foreign, slightly scary part of society.
Then I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and began peeling away decades of religious indoctrination. I discovered how empowering it feels to help decide the course of our national affairs with my vote. I replaced my suspicion of (and not a little condescension toward) the United States military with respect for this class of people who understand the meaning of bravery and sacrifice. I fell in love with my country for the first time and now my patriotism resembles that of an immigrant with freshly minted citizenship papers. To be clear, war is horrible and I oppose meaningless killing. I wish we didn’t have to live in a world that relies on standing armies for its security. But this is the only world we have, and I’m glad I can sleep at night, knowing that there are people willing to put their life on the line to protect those would never thank them (like my former religionists). The least we can do is turn down the Lynrd Skynrd for a moment one day a year and raise a glass in their honor.
When the service ended, I made a beeline to the ex-Marine. A crusty old man with a quick, ready-to-rumble wit, he shook my hand and asked if I’d served in the military. “No,” I said. It felt good to add, with sincerity and respect, “But I have a high regard for those who do.”
During the service, Amanda and I sat in front of a lone young man with raspberry-colored hair who became increasingly agitated during the service. Afterward, concerned about his welfare, I pointed him out to one of the church members, a Navy vet. He assured me that the church was aware of the situation, that the young man did, indeed, have a mental disability and to make matters worse, his parents died recently. He had been struggling to cope with his new circumstances. But then the vet said something that reassured me. Acknowledging his mental illness, he said, “But that’s okay. Isn’t church where sick people are supposed to be?”
It’s good to know there are people in this world who’ve got our back on and off the battlefield.