BALAD, Iraq (BP)–Almost a year has passed since Sergeant First Class Melissa Robinson-Ellis was shopping in a LifeWay Christian Store just a few days before leaving for a year-long tour of duty in Iraq.
She and her fiancé, Clay Washington, also a soldier, scanned the aisles for anything that might help them during their deployment: she to Balad, he to Baghdad. But a business card from Robert Crawford, the store’s manager in Fayetteville, N.C., provided more assistance than just the resources they bought.
“When I started to run out of Christian literature to read, I went to the [LifeWay Christian Stores] website and started surfing the adult Bible study section,” Robinson-Ellis wrote in an e-mail interview with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. She saw the LifeWay study, “Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God,” and ordered it through the Christian Growth Study Plan.
The Christian Growth Study Plan, dating back to 1902, is managed by LifeWay but is sponsored by various Southern Baptist Convention entities including the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. It allows church leadership and lay leaders to participate in study courses to help develop skills in leadership and Christian growth for the church. After fulfilling study requirements, participants receive a course certification and ultimately a diploma in their respective category, either in leadership and skill development or Christian growth.
Robinson-Ellis joined the Army almost 19 years ago and served with the Army Reserves the previous two years. Currently, the 37-year-old is stationed at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, roughly 45 miles north of Baghdad. The base, nicknamed “Mortaritaville,” sees its frequent share of attacks by insurgents.
“I think this whole experience has brought me closer to God,” said Robinson-Ellis, who attends Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville and Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla., her home church and where her parents live and care for her 11-year-old son, Christian, while she’s away.
“When you are deployed you sometimes have a lot of free time on your hands and I love to read,” she said, “so I occupied my time with studying the Word of God and reflecting on the provisions that He made for us.”
Part of the 18th Aviation Brigade of the XVIII Airborne Corps out of Fort Bragg, N.C., Robinson-Ellis, an equal opportunity adviser, is responsible for ensuring that each soldier’s rights are provided for and protected.
Saved and baptized at a young age, Robinson-Ellis has been in church her “whole life,” and though she says she “experienced the world,” her Christian values brought her “back to God.” Each morning she starts her day with prayer and a short devotional and Scripture. She also used her mornings to go through the Experiencing God study by Henry Blackaby and Claude King.
“It helped me get through the days of being away from my son, my fiancé and my family,” she reported.
The study explores how to discover and do the will of God. Robinson-Ellis found special comfort from the section on “crisis of belief,” a subject that hit close to home when her fiancé’s camp in Baghdad was attacked.
Her fiancé, stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad, worked in the same brigade as one of Robinson-Ellis’ fellow advisers and both of them attended a men’s study group that met on Wednesday nights. One night, their camp was pelted by mortar rounds and the trailer that the adviser lived in was hit by a round and destroyed.
“This happened during the time they all would have been on their way to the study group so, fortunately, no one was hurt,” Robinson-Ellis said. “This crisis showed me that we have to believe that God will protect us and provide for us in all situations.
“The most important thing that God taught and reinforced with me is that I could depend on Him,” Robinson-Ellis said. “He would provide everything that I need and … protect me and that where I go He would be there also. God is a God [who] is everywhere. He doesn’t limit Himself.”
Robinson-Ellis recently completed the study and turned in the necessary information to receive her course certification as part of LifeWay’s Christian Growth Study Plan.
“In the next few years, we’ll see more electronic Web-based activity” in the study plan -– “online courses and webcasts you can get credit for,” Tom McMinn, leadership training specialist for LifeWay, said. “This is a very vital program for church training. It’s vital for making disciples for the 21st century.”
McMinn said he wasn’t surprised to hear that the studies are used as far away as Iraq. He pointed out that thousands of missionaries use the studies overseas. More than 28,800 non-Southern Baptist churches also have participated in the program as well along with 5,000 individuals –- including military personnel and prisoners -– who aren’t related to a particular church.
For more information about the Christian Growth Study Plan, visit http://www.lifeway.com/cgsp.