My father-in-law recently told a story from one of his frequent work trips. He was in an airport, waiting as we all do, to be processed through the TSA’s security regime. The uniqueness of his wait in line comes from the company he happened upon: a group of nuns.

It’s a rather different experience to see a group of nuns in an airport. We’re used to seeing academics, business travelers, or snowbirds staring at their phones, dreaming of warmer weather than the Minneapolis area provides this time of year.

Yet there they were, unloading rosaries and miraculous medallions into the gray plastic buckets while the rest of the day’s travelers dumped their keys and wallets in similarly. My father-in-law talked with the nuns for a good while standing in line. Eventually though, he had to take his leave and get to his flight’s gate. As he did so he yelled, “Thank you for your service!”

The nuns were surprised for a second, but delighted that he had taken notice of them in such a regard. Calls of “God bless you!” followed him on his walk into the terminal.

November is the season of gratitude. Much of our thankfulness for service goes (quite deservedly) to the veterans who keep our country safe by serving in the U.S. armed forces at home and around the world. Secondary consideration goes to firefighters, policeman, EMTs and other medical professionals.

Somehow, contemporary American culture seems to either ignore or outright dismiss how nuns, priests and pastors, and other religious workers contribute to American society. That’s an unfortunate oversight. While soldiers, policemen, and firefighters work hard protecting our physical wellbeing and property, those with religious vocations work hard seeking to save our souls. They also work hard ministering to the poor, oppressed, sick, dying, and lonely – groups over overlooked by society. And just as soldiers, policemen, and firefighters are often undercompensated, so too are many who labor in religious vocations, with many taking vows of poverty, providing their services at no cost to the American taxpayer, and alleviating many societal ills.

The secularization of our culture may be driving the increasing growth of religious “nones,” but even so, we shouldn’t forget actual religious nuns – and their counterparts in other denominations.

Thankfulness for their service ought to be expressed just as often as that for veterans, especially given the crisis of religious vocations in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, there were nearly 180,000 religious sisters in the U.S. in 1965. Fifty years later, that number dropped to less than 50,000. Similarly, the number of priests fell from nearly 60,000 to under 40,000 in 2014. All of this despite the huge increase in the American population at large.

If we were more aware and vocally thankful for the contributions of those in religious vocations, would we see more of them take up the mantle of service? Theirs is an important work, and we will surely continue to feel the effects of their absence as their numbers continue to dwindle.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons-Jorge Royan, CC BY-SA 3.0]