BUILDING COMMUNITY, ONE MEAL AT A TIME
In 2012, recently consecrated Bishop Douglas Fisher identified the needs of U.S. Veterans as a priority of his episcopate. Having served in a parish outside the gates of West Point, the Bishop recognized the urgency of their plight: unduly high incidences of depression, social isolation, post-traumatic stress, and risk of suicide. It was the Bishop’s conviction that the church was being called to reach out with the healing hands of Jesus.
Almost a decade ago, Doug tapped the shoulder of Diocesan priest, Christopher Carlisle, and Building Bridges was born. Several strategies were considered before adopting a strategy by which the church itself was born: gathering communities around the sacrament of a meal. So, beginning in Northampton at the World War II Club, one, then three, then several handfuls of Veterans began to appear.
The Diocesan support of Building Bridges is now provided through Human to Human
. Human to Human is a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts committed to resourcing emerging frontline ministries within and beyond the walls of our churches. Building Bridges is one of those ministries.
Now twelve communities strong—most in our Diocese, and three in three other dioceses—those who risked their lives on behalf of us all are being gathered in gratitude. Just as Building Bridges offers “a different way of being church,” its 75,000 meals re-imagines “Communion” for its communities of Veterans. Indeed, the Bishop remarks, “The first person to recognize the divinity of Christ was a soldier.”
Our philosophy is a simple one: we provide a comfortable, nonjudgmental space for Veterans of all ages and stripes to come together to build community. There is no fine print, and no expectations beyond the gift of their presence. While the premise is simple, the reasons for Building Bridges and other related Veteran services, are not. The suicide rate amongst veterans is almost 40% higher than that of the general population; veterans account for 20% of all suicides while representing less than 1% of the entire population; and twenty Veterans take their own lives every day. It is especially sobering to consider that more Vietnam Veterans have died by suicide than soldiers on the battlefield.
Although Building Bridges is not a counseling service, and does not provide regular programmed services per se, its communities have shown their effectiveness. When an internal survey of Building Bridges participants was recently conducted, over 70% of respondents stated that their involvement in Building Bridges has helped them with depression, social isolation, and suicide risk. Congressman Jim McGovern recently stated, “I am convinced that if it were not for Building Bridges, the suicide incidence rate for Veterans in my district would be much higher.”
Most Building Bridges gatherings are monthly luncheons, while several others offer dinner or breakfast. The breakfast meeting in Swansea, in the Diocese of Massachusetts, is hosting 100 Veterans on Saturday Mornings. It is our goal to continue to grow, and so to meet as many new Veterans in new places as we can.
There are of course challenges. It is a challenge to reach younger Gulf War and post-911 era veterans, creating a gender gap we are working to address. One very exciting development is that our newest site is an LGBTQ+ gathering in Northampton. We are also looking for ways to reach more veterans in rural communities.
Simply put, Building Bridges is about “being church” in a different way. As we move forward and live into the new realities of our day, we feel called to find ways to spread the gospel message beyond the walls of our churches. Building Bridges does just that. According to Director, Chris Carlisle, “Every day we feel inspired by the presence of God outside, where Jesus was—striving to build bridges in a divided world in gratitude for one another.”
The Diocesan support of Building Bridges is through Human to Human and by private direct donations. Mark Rogers, Acting Director of Human to Human says, “We know Building Bridges to be critically important, believe it is sustainable, and look forward to welcoming every new Veteran to a Building Bridges community. “