Nov. 11 is Veterans Day, for many people just another paid holiday enjoyed by government employees. That is, it is a holiday unless you are a homeless veteran.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that nearly one in four homeless persons is a veteran. Shocked? You should be, because these are the people who served you, many of whom risked their lives when they went off to fight this country's wars. Even more shocking is the rising number of female veterans who are on the streets. Though this latter number is still not very high, it is rising every year.
To honor our homeless veterans, the parishioners at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. will hold a Veterans Day commemoration and meal for homeless men and women. The Rev. Randolph Charles, rector of the parish, tells me that they intend to feed as many as 300 veterans who live on the streets of our national capitol. I will be there wearing an apron and helping to serve up the plates. You see, I am a veteran myself, and these men and women, figuratively my brothers and sisters in arms, are people who need me. And I need them.
Like most of you, I'd rather not believe that there are homeless veterans, and if there are, I'd like to think that they are on the street -- sleeping under park bushes and atop sidewalk grates, some with nothing more than an old cardboard box to protect them -- because they couldn't make it through their tour of duty in the military service to which they once belonged. In other words, I'd like to believe these homeless veterans are defective and broken people who lack the will to get a job and live a normal life. Yet, that is just my fantasy about a world that does not exist.
In fact, many of these homeless veterans served with honor. Many of them received military decorations for their bravery and heroism. Some were officers, and some others even served enough years to be honorably retired. Like many others, I believe that homelessness is a blight on our country. However, it is even more of blight if the homeless persons are service veterans.
So what do the homeless veterans have to give to me? I've been working with homeless persons for more than 20 years now. When I first started working with them I was an active duty Navy chaplain who had everything going for him. At least that was what I thought before I began working with the homeless, many of whom I found were veterans. What I learned was that when I gave a man a blanket -- as did soldier Martin of Tours in the 4th century -- or gave a mother a mat on which to sleep, or gave a child a stuffed animal to help her make it through the night, that their simple "thank you" was something I needed in order to be more human. I learned that the Jesus Christ whom I claimed to follow had a bias toward the weak. Jesus' calling was to act as I believed by serving veterans in need.
Bishop James "Jay" Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Based in Washington DC, he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities.