Aspen Times, February 20, 2017
Paul Andersen, Fair Game 

Andersen: Aspen Chapel nurtures community soul

Marine Corps veteran Brian Porter described exposure to toxic air pollution during Operation Desert Storm. 

“I coughed up black gunk for two years after that,” he said.

That was 26 years ago as U.S. coalition forces pushed Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist forces out of Kuwait. Porter’s olfactory sense was so tainted that he can still smell burning oil wells, the pungent stench of cordite and other unspeakable battle odors today.

Porter described the rigors of war to the congregation at Aspen Chapel last week. He talked of his struggle between life and death after his service and how the love and care of friends, family, fellow veterans — and the wilderness surrounding Aspen — combined to give meaning to his life.

Aspen Chapel was the perfect place for Porter to tell his story, an institution that affirms the value of community. He was there representing Huts for Vets, for which he serves as director of operations, supervising wilderness trips for fellow veterans at the 10th Mountain Huts — a fitting payback.

Aspen is fortunate to have a chapel that provides an ecumenical, spiritual dimension for the cohesion of community. This was very clear during last week’s service where Porter felt comfortable speaking his truth before an audience.

Nicholas Vesey, the chapel’s spiritual leader, interviewed Brian with sensitivity and care, prompting him for what he needed and wanted to say, and providing the congregation what it needed to hear and appreciate about veterans.

This kind of exchange is vital if veterans like Porter are ever to be heard by civilians, which is when community healing takes place. Many veterans, like Porter, have a lot to share about their service, but often lack an appropriate venue or a receptive audience that isn’t afraid or judgmental.

That kind of connection often fails when civilians address veterans with a quick “thank you for your service.” As Porter explained, that well-meaning acknowledgement can feel like an affront to veterans who are not proud of what they did during their service. A deeper, more personal dialogue is necessary for a meaningful connection.

Aspen Chapel provides that connection in a safe, quiet, respectful place where the universal values of humanism are delivered through Vesey’s philosophical sermons. His topic on this particular Sunday was empathy, the foundation for human caring and compassion. One day, Vesey prophesied, war will be as foreign and repugnant to the human spirit as slavery, and objected to just as strongly.

One can only hope that he’s right, and that soldiers will need not endure the “soul wounds” that Porter said many veterans hold painfully today. Havens like Aspen Chapel are essential places for veterans to purge their psyches of the taint they carry from what they saw and did during their service.

Aspen Chapel is appropriate because it provides communion instead of dogmas, leading to understanding, empathy and the affirmation of spiritual values and moral virtues. Nicholas Vesey has helped create such an atmosphere in this beautiful structure, the steeple of which points skyward at the Aspen roundabout, pointing to the higher purposes of the community it serves.

The wisdom of the ages concludes that the highest purpose of all is love, which Vesey said needs not require reciprocity. Love can project a pure sense of giving, with nothing expected in return other than a feeling of wholeness with those one loves.

The Aspen Chapel is a loyal supporter of Huts for Vets, and Brian Porter was supportive in return. Few civilians have an opportunity to look inside the heart and mind of a battle-scarred veteran. Porter gave of himself as no one else could. His wasn’t a polished, rehearsed speech; it simply and plainly poured from his heart and mind.

And it washed over the walls of the chapel where many lofty words and thoughts have mingled with a receptive congregation attuned toward fashioning a more humane world through the manifestation of spiritual growth.

While jaded Aspenites may lament the erosion of community due to depersonalization from over development, conspicuous consumption, and fractured political and class divisions, the Aspen Chapel counters with humility, openness and inclusion. It’s a comforting place for everyone and anyone.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.