KILLEEN, Texas (BP)–The clattering sounds of railcars rumbling down the tracks from Fort Hood are constant reminders that the nation is thundering closer to war.
But for families, friends and fellow church members of soldiers being deployed to Iraq, they don’t need the 24-hour-a-day reminders.
“About 75 percent of our church is directly related to the military,” said Joe Rich, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas. “We have about 1,650 in attendance in Bible study and already more than 50 soldiers who have left. We’re expecting to have 100-plus deployed. Just how many, we don’t know.”
For every soldier shipped out from nearby Fort Hood, usually at least one family member is left behind to maintain the home front.
Ministering to them has been Memorial Baptist’s labor of love.
While some remaining spouses choose to go home to their families, Rich said several wives believe they can do their part in the effort by staying in Killeen and supporting each other, in part because of the church’s ministry.
Sara Allison is one of those wives, as her husband, 1st Lt. Brian Allison of the Signal Corps in the U.S. Army, is scheduled to be deployed in two weeks. “Right now, I’m okay, but I’ve been told the reality of it all sets in about two weeks after he leaves.
“We don’t have children, so my first thought was to go home to Pensacola.” But as a result of the church’s ministry, “a great Sunday School class” and being a part of the music ministry at the church, Allison said she’s planning to stay in Killeen.
“Brian joined the military after we got married and I’m from a military family, so I know a little bit of what to expect,” she said. “My dad was in Vietnam, so my mother has been where I’m going to be. But they know I’m strong, and I’m getting support from them and the church.”
Over the years, Memorial Baptist Church has developed a strategy of ministry to families in times like these. In fact, Rich, who has been at Memorial since 1992, said some of the retired military church members who reach out to the military families have been in their shoes and were recipients of ministry years ago.
“The soldiers are putting their lives on the line, concentrating on doing their job and it’s a lot easier when they know that the home front is being taken care of,” Rich said.
“There’s a saying with the military of ‘I’ve got your back’ and that’s what we’re doing for their families. We want to tell them we’ve got them covered, don’t worry. We need to take care of the family, whatever that means. Soldiers take care of soldiers.”
Cpl. Jerry White was deployed in January and two weeks after he left the family van had a major problem, leaving his wife, Malynda, and three children stranded without a working vehicle. When one of the deacons heard about it, he made a plea to the church. More than $1,000 came in to meet the need.
“The church has been awesome,” White beamed. “I haven’t gone a Sunday without someone asking about Jerry since he’s been gone. People have called me to make sure we’re doing okay. During the revival, when our van broke down, we had people come by and give us a ride to church, which is not easy since we have three children.”
She added that the spiritual aspect of having the men of the church pray with the children and giving a male influence has been meaningful, especially to her son.
The two major tools Memorial Baptist uses in ministering to the families are the church’s Sunday School and deacon ministries.
“Every member is assigned to a deacon and everyone is assigned to a Sunday School class. With those two ministries, we are meeting the families’ needs, whatever they might be,” the pastor said.
“Because our church is a large church, we want to break it down to be a family church. Sunday School classes are made up of couples around the same age and some have been deployed and some have not, so the mix is good to lend support to the families.”
Some of the support efforts include weekly meetings for wives. “I don’t know of any wives who have been deployed and their husbands left here, so it’s all women in the groups. They meet and talk, sharing whatever needs they have. They even share e-mails from those already deployed and put them all together to see the bigger picture of what it’s like over there.”
It’s not just the tears they share together. Some of the women who have been there before give comfort, advice and spiritual encouragement to those left behind for the first time.
Even though her husband served in Desert Storm before they were married and was deployed last year to Kuwait, White said this time is different.
“I don’t know where he’ll be and they’ll likely see action. Staying together and having [other wives] who have been through it tell you what to expect really helps. The support lets the younger women know what to expect and the reasons why things happen, even if the husband can’t explain it all.”
The church is able to help the community in other ways, not just in ministering to military families. Retired Lt. Col. Dick Chapin operates the church’s food distribution center, providing groceries, food baskets and clothes to families on low to moderate incomes.
Of those families, about 35 to 45 percent are military families. Last year the church distributed 1.2 million pounds of food, helping more than 400 families a month. The church uses several part-time employees and about 35 volunteers. “We get the food from a variety of sources, including Wal-Mart, food banks like Second Harvest in Chicago and Capital Food Bank out of Austin.”
Chapin said the church is able to also provide financial counseling assistance to a number of families, especially when the husbands are gone and the wives need assistance in taking care of the bills.
Soldiers who are in combat get a small increase in pay, but many of the soldiers lose the part-time jobs they hold during peacetime. As a result, sometimes the family income actually decreases when soldiers leave for the battlefield.
“The combat pay is tax-free, but it’s amazing how many soldiers qualify for welfare,” Rich stated. “The salary of the military personnel is not that great, especially for the non-officers. Someone who is an ‘E-4’ (an enlisted man with two stripes) still qualifies for welfare. It’s a hardship in many ways.”
Pastoring a military church is unique because of the comradery that unites the church, Rich said. “Sometimes they say ‘amen’ in service and sometimes they say, ‘who-ah’ like they do in training,” he said with an affectionate laugh.
As the likelihood of war looms closer, the spiritual awareness and need grows in the men and women in Killeen. A revival held in mid-January resulted in 164 professions of faith in Christ. The success was so great that evangelist Ken Freeman returned again Feb. 2.
“For our support groups, we encourage the ladies to bring in their friends, even if they’re not members, and help them grow and hopefully lead them into a relationship with Christ.”
Following President Bush’s State of the Union address, Rich said the deployment accelerated. “Three guys called me today and said they were leaving. Deployment is getting quicker, with some going within 24 hours.”
While he did not serve in the military, Rich said he’s learned a great deal through his ministry to the families. “What we’ve discovered [about it] is how times like these unify our fellowship. We talk about being brothers and sisters in Christ, but you really don’t know someone until you break down and cry with them.”
With such a major part of the community departing, no one in the church is immune from the emotional struggles, including the pastor. “The other day, something came up and just broke my heart. A soldier told me he got his orders to be deployed in two weeks. He said, ‘Pastor, my wife is expecting our baby in April. Make sure you take a lot of pictures because I won’t get to see that.’ Now these soldiers don’t whine or complain, and they have the attitude of ‘That’s what I’m here for.’ But still it takes its toll on the inside.”
One tradition is for the soldiers to give an emblem about the size of a silver dollar to somebody who’s made an impact in their lives. “When you get one of those and you know that they are so patriotic and so brave, it’s an honor to worship and stand beside these guys.”
Rich said one of the best things churches around the state can do in support of the war effort is to specifically pray for the soldiers by name and get in contact with the families. “It’s a roller coaster ride. No one, of course, wants to go to war, but if you do, it’s good to know our soldiers are ready and it’s good to have other churches have specific names and call out to God for protection.
“You would think with all those leaving for deployment, attendance would be down, but actually it’s up. People in the community are seeing the trains leave and the Humvees rolling out, and that’s having an impact to bring people closer to God.”
McKeown is minister of education at Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PRESIDENTS PASSION, CARE FOR THE TROOPS and SIDE BY SIDE.