As members of the military, my husband, Chris, and I have spent many months away from home. Together, we have been deployed to Haiti and Kosovo, and Chris has been to Iraq on his own, twice. In all of our deployments, we have witnessed more poverty, desolation, and homelessness than we had ever seen before.
Now, I have never known the suffering of being poor and without physical shelter. But in the course of nearly a dozen assignments to cities far and wide over twenty-one years, I’ve sometimes felt rootless, alone, and spiritually homeless. And so I’ve found that my personal “assignment” has been to combat the enemy of isolation.
Fighting Loneliness. In 2008, Chris started a one-year deployment, leaving me at home with our three children. We were stationed at a military reservation in Hawaii, four thousand miles from my hometown in Iowa.
Chris’ departure left many holes in our lives. The kids’ playmate and best story reader, the man they waited all day to see, was going to be gone for a long time. Our one-year-old seemed to think every soldier in uniform was his daddy. As for me, I worried constantly about Chris’ safety and whether he would return to us alive and well. I cried in the shower so that the children wouldn’t see my sadness.
At the time, we were attending St. Damien Catholic Church, a military chapel built into the side of a volcanic crater. I have to admit, though, that I wasn’t looking to put down roots in a church community. Why bother, when we were just going to move again? Also, by this time the stressors of loneliness and single parenting had chipped away my desire to be at Mass every week. I found plenty of excuses to miss. Chris is deployed. The kids didn’t sleep well last night. If we go, they’ll be disruptive.
When I did get to Mass and receive the Eucharist, I didn’t feel transformed. Mostly, I just felt disconnected.
“Come to Church!” But the people at St. Damien’s wouldn’t let me retreat into anxiety and isolation. “We missed you last week,” a parishioner told me after one of my absences. I braced myself for a reproach, but instead she asked, “Is everything okay?”
Our pastor, Fr. Dan, always had an encouraging word. “Don’t stay away because you feel you’re not worthy,” he would tell everyone. “Come to church! We want to see you—and not just on Sunday.” My kids were welcome, too. One time, my son ran up toward the altar during Mass because he couldn’t see from his seat, and Fr. Dan, himself in his seventies, said, “Let him come. I’m half blind myself!”
At St. Damien’s, sitting on the sidelines didn’t seem to be an option. Weekly announcements heralded events and opportunities for service and fellowship for people of all ages. I started to pay attention. Soon I was there with the kids on Tuesdays for family night and on Thursdays for a women’s small group.
Before I knew it, the chapel had become our second home. A couple from the church became my surrogate mom and dad, and we joined a rotating dinner group with other military families. The meals were always noisy but fun—and everyone stayed to help clean up!
A Home and a Hero. During those difficult months without Chris, I looked for ways to deepen my relationship with God. I attended several one-day parish retreats. As Chris’ return drew near, I even helped plan the chapel’s annual retreat for married couples. By the time he came home, I was fully active in my faith. I could no longer call myself spiritually homeless because I belonged at St. Damien’s. So it was a great joy for me when Chris and I attended the marriage retreat together!
The parish also offered me the example of a hero of the faith who experienced isolation and loneliness: St. Damien of Molokai, our patron. This Belgian missionary spent his last sixteen years caring for people with leprosy who had been banished to a remote island settlement.
It was an exciting time to live in Hawaii because we were there around the time that Fr. Damien was canonized (2009). Our women’s group learned all we could about him through books and movies, and then we went on pilgrimage to Molokai. The peninsula settlement, where Fr. Damien arrived in 1873, is sparsely populated and still remote—to reach it, we hiked three hours down the switchbacks of two-thousand-foot cliffs. Wandering past the chapel and houses he built, we marveled at how much hope this priest had brought to an abandoned people.
Everything about Fr. Damien amazed and inspired me—his trust in God, his dedicated service, and his ability to create a loving environment for people in need. Even today, his example nudges me to notice and reach out to people around me who may be lonely, as I was, or bearing other difficult burdens.
Rooted in Jesus. As I write this, we are at our current assignment in Oklahoma—more than 3,500 miles from Hawaii. After being home for six years, Chris is preparing to leave for a year-long deployment to Kuwait.
Though his absence will be painful, I can face it more peacefully this time around. I’m grounded now because I know that Jesus is at work in our family and that God will guide us.
We have found a new spiritual home in Oklahoma, and I can see the children’s faith growing at the military chapel here. My youngest tells me, “I love God and my family!” And my son, who just made his First Communion, is begging me to let him get trained as an altar server.
As we move from city to city, we are not rootless. We are members of the body of Christ.
Major Katie Hanna is a member of the US Army Reserves.
Katie Hanna draws courage from her relationship with Christ and the support of the military chapels where she has found a spiritual home. She and her family are among the almost 2,000,000 Catholics served by just 250 Catholic military chaplains on bases and ships at sea, in war zones and veterans’ hospitals. By providing The Word Among Us magazine, the Partners Ministry helps these chaplains to bring God’s peace and love to more than 400 military locations worldwide.
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