Story: Deb Denny, Administrative Assistant, Episcopal Diocese of Central New York
📷: Provided by Christ Church, Manlius
To live in the military world, a soldier quickly learns all about sacrifice. To live a Christ-filled life, we too must appreciate and endure sacrifice for others – sacrifice of time, financial sacrifice and emotional sacrifice as we push through our selfish and instinctual worldly desires to do what God is calling us to do for others.
Not always an easy thing to do, but it is what is commanded of us as Christians – and Christ Episcopal Church in Manlius is doing just that. Over the past year, along with their other community-focused missions, the church has embraced the local veteran community by offering a physical and spiritual partnership with Clear Path for Veterans.
“Our church does so many good things in the community, mostly by financial donations,” said Christ Church Warden Mollie Mills. “But I thought we could perhaps do more on-site volunteer work like we do for the Samaritan Center.” And she thought Clear Path for Veterans would be a great place to grow the church’s hands-on work, pointing out that over the years, individuals from Christ Church had volunteered at and donated to Clear Path, but the church as a whole had never really been that involved.
Founded in 2011 by Christ Church parishioners and sisters, Melissa Spicer and Melinda Sarkus, along with US Air Force Veteran Dr. Steve Kinne, Clear Path is a local organization headquartered in Chittenango that helps veterans in the Syracuse area. Over the years, it has grown and now serves 33 counties across New York State, assisting more than 30,000 veterans a year.
“We are community-based, and our model was built around the traditions of warrior culture,” explained co-founder and Clear Path board member, Melissa Spicer. “Within that culture, veterans always take care of one another, but at Clear Path, we believe the community plays an important role in bringing veterans all the way home.”
Clear Path’s mission is to recognize the responsibility of communities to serve those who serve in the United States military, she said, “and we empower active service members, Veterans, Guard and Reserve members, and their families through supportive programs and services in a safe and respectful environment.”
Clear Path’s programs address the challenges veterans face such as homelessness, disconnection, health, trauma and depression by zeroing in on all aspects of wellness including physical, emotional, social, intellectual and vocational. Another important component of the healing process is spirituality.
“Post Traumatic Stress is a soul wound, and spirituality is one of the six dimensions of wellness,” Melissa said. “Abe Lincoln once said, ‘I have fallen to my knees because I had no where else to go.’ That statement resonates with me personally, because, during some of my darkest days, I turned my back on God but fell to my knees when my soul ached. Often, I hear veterans say ‘How could there be a God? After what I’ve seen, there’s no way he exists.’ Often a topic that is not talked about, this pillar of wellness is where most veterans find forgiveness, hope, and peace.”
Mollie said she felt her church could certainly provide some support in this crucial realm of the healing process and when she learned that Diocesan Ministry Grants were available to help fund parish projects, it occurred to her that this could be a way to help initiate some type of spiritual mission as a parish at Clear Path.
In the spring of 2022, Christ Church applied for a ministry grant, outlining their projected outreach strategy that included volunteering at Clear Path’s Back-to-School festival; sponsoring one of the weekly Canteens, a luncheon which feeds approximately 350 veteran guests each week; volunteering at events; and offering pastoral one-on-one or group time with Christ Church priest, Rev. Timothy Hannon.
One of the most significant projects the church wanted funding for was to create a “Place for Reflection” on the grounds, providing an invitingly tranquil place to sit, think, pray and share with others.
“But I first needed the parishioners to get to know all that the organization does,” she said. So, when Christ Church was awarded the grant in May of 2022, the first thing she did was to schedule the Vestry’s annual retreat at Clear Path where the Vestry had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the organization and all it provided to the veterans and their families. She said most of the vestry members were amazed at the physical beauty of the site and as well as the warmness of the facility. “They couldn’t believe how lovely it was and said they had assumed it would be more like a clinic someplace in a strip mall,” she said with a chuckle.
In August of 2022, the parish volunteered at the Back-to-School Festival, helping to distribute nearly 200 backpacks to the children of veterans. In October, they sponsored one of the weekly Canteens which encompassed not only monetary donations, but also 18 church volunteers to help prepare the food, wait on tables, wash dishes, etc., and most importantly, to spend one-on-one time with the veterans who attended.
Over the past winter, Mollie was excited to learn that several members of the church were visiting Clear Path on their own to volunteer. “Some helped to wrap Christmas gifts, some got involved with the organization’s vital Canine Program as well as volunteering at fundraising events.”
May of 2023 saw the groundbreaking for the final grant item when a group of 20 volunteers from the church along with Clear Path veterans began clearing the site, moving the border bricks and assembling the benches and an arbor for the “Place of Reflection.”
“It’s not quite finished yet due to the weather,” she said, “but people have already been using it.” She said along with Clear Path veterans, the peaceful retreat has also been used by hikers and people who walk their dogs on the property.
Mollie is delighted that her parish has become more aware of and involved in helping to serve the veterans at Clear Path and said they may be applying for another grant for more projects the church has in mind, but she is really hoping other parishes in the Diocese might follow their lead.
“This is really bigger than Christ Church,” said Mollie. “And Christ Church’s work with Clear Path would not have happened without the impetus created by the Diocesan Ministry Grant. The grants are a marvelous concept and I’m hoping that other churches in the diocese will follow our example, either independently or in cooperation with other churches.” And, she added, she is more than happy to help anyone with the grant process.
Either way, she said, the parishioners at Christ Church will continue to spotlight and serve the veterans there. “And weather permitting, we are continuing the work on the tranquility site this fall.”
As for the parishioners who volunteer, she said she enjoys the level of enthusiasm and commitment they have. “Everyone who participated in the program just loved every minute of it – even the children and young people. And the volunteers are always asking me when the next project is.”
Christ Church parishioners Dr. Jim Tifft and his wife, Deb, are two of those volunteers who quickly became invested in Clear Path’s work and the veterans it serves.
“Deb and I wanted to volunteer as a way to give back to people who had done so much for our country,” Jim explained. “We were involved in helping to put together benches at Clear Path for the area of reflection. But we also have served meals at their weekly canteen, talked with visitors at the Canteen and wrapped gifts for their Christmas party for families.”
“When you give,” he said, “you also receive, and we both received a lot of gratification from helping others.” He said he and his wife also got to know members of their own congregation in a deeper way by working with them.
“I was struck by the diversity of volunteers and the congeniality of them all,” added Deb. “I also was taken with the need of veterans to share their stories.”
“Having my own church contribute and invest in spiritual wellness has deepened my relationship with God and my church,” said Melissa. She shared an example of how this project has had a positive impact on the veterans they serve, starting with a group of active-duty military members who frequent the Wednesday lunch.
She said as they gathered for lunch, their volunteer manager, Andy, noted one of the members was very quiet and not communicating. He offered up a tour of the grounds which includes a series of trails, where one ends at the place of reflection. After lunch, the group explored the trails and after 30 minutes, they returned. The leader of the group thanked Andy for his hospitality and noted that while at the place of reflection, the quiet airman was able to speak about a recent suicide in her squad.
“Healing for that group started that day, where nestled in the woods, there was a place they felt safe to discuss something that was painful. Being active duty, the switch from sadness to serving happens within minutes, but these folks now have a place they can go that’s safe and amidst the beauty of nature.”
“Serving veterans is not being pro-war,” concluded Melissa. “It’s being responsible and I’m so grateful Christ Church sees value in our mission.”
Volunteering: There are many opportunities to volunteer at Clear Path. If interested, you may contact Andy Suma at email@example.com. Or you can sign up on their website at https://www.clearpath4vets.com/.
Ministry Grants: Diocesan Ministry Grants are offered bi-annually each spring and fall. They are always announced in The Messenger when the grant process opens and more information and application forms are available on the Diocesan website at https://cnyepiscopal.org/.