News Articles

Southern Baptists surround families of captured soldiers with prayer

EL PASO, Texas (BP)–With word that as many as 12 soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss are missing following an ambush by Iraqi forces on March 23, Southern Baptists and other Christians near the Army post stand ready to minister to the families of those affected.

Pastor Rix W. Tillman of Exciting Immanuel Baptist Church in El Paso called his congregation to prayer at 4 p.m. Sunday to intercede for those deployed. “We have a tremendous amount of military people in our church, so there’s a very heightened awareness there,” he said. “Whenever there’s a need we address it.”

During fierce fighting near the southern Iraqi town of An Nasiriyah, the Iraqi militia captured the Fort Bliss soldiers. “We’ve just been praying all day and listening to the news,” Maria Cervantes said Sunday night in an interview with the El Paso Times. Families were called to the post Sunday afternoon where they were told that an officer and chaplain would come to the homes if death notifications had to be made.

Members of the group are a part of the 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade that was deployed to Kuwait just over a month ago. Fort Bliss officials reported that the company was “involved in an incident while engaged in maneuvers with the 3rd Infantry Division.”

U.S. congressmen from the west Texas and eastern New Mexico region, both with military experience in Vietnam, praised the family support group at Fort Bliss for the manner in which they are addressing a difficult situation. The U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, in conjunction with the Army Family Liaison Office, established a toll-free family assistance hotline at 1-800-833-6622 to give Army families information, resources and referrals. It is available only to family members of soldiers on active duty and those in the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve who are on active duty.

Iraq war commander Gen. Tommy Franks described the Fort Bliss logistics support troops who were captured as “highly trained” and “highly motivated” following a report on an Arabic television station showing the captured soldiers under interrogation.

The names and faces of some of those captured were broadcast Sunday through interviews with Iraqi television. Major U.S. networks refused to play additional footage of the captured soldiers, showing only still images of prisoners and obscured angles of four bodies.

Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt admitted that morale is low at the post. “The mood of course is very tragic. We regret this,” she was quoted as saying to the El Paso newspaper. Another soldier stationed there described the reaction as “shock and disbelief” while adding that he is certain the post “will band together.”

A volunteer youth worker at Exciting Immanuel Baptist Church is currently stationed at Fort Bliss and has been actively assisting families dealing with the anxiety surrounding such events. Tillman said the youth team led the church in worship Sunday as they contemplated the anxiety many are facing and prayed specifically for those needs.

“They’ve got a lot going on at the base with the chaplains,” Tillman added, explaining, however, that a heightened alert status now prevented his participation in such ministries. The chaplain ministry teams of Fort Bliss offer a comprehensive program in support of commanders, unit ministry teams and the total Army community at the base through worship, pastoral care and community outreach. Chaplains emphasize the “ministry of presence” that is particularly crucial in such a time as this, according to officials at the base.

A volunteer staff member who coordinates the church’s prayer ministry has a son deployed with an infantry unit, Tillman said. Another member of the church’s praise team was recently deployed as part of a judge advocate general’s office. Many relatives of church members are serving with the Patriot anti-missile defense system in the Mideast.

When Tillman began his ministry in El Paso eight years ago, the church had 12 retired colonels. “There’s a higher level of awareness,” he said, prompting an increased focus on ministry to the military. As the church begins a “Forty Days of Purpose” emphasis, he said, “A lot of the small groups we are beginning will have military men and women and we’re going to be reaching out to them.”

Mountain View Baptist Pastor Gib Allen of El Paso broke the news of the capture of locally based troops to many in his congregation Sunday morning. Fort Bliss is only a 10-minute drive from the church, and two-thirds of the congregation are retired military, Allen told Baptist Press.

“There is a lot of fear, especially yesterday morning in our services in sharing that one of the Fort Bliss maintenance batteries had been captured and assaulted. People were really upset about the whole thing. Some are fearful of the condition of their own family members, but a couple of them had been able to talk to their spouses or got word that they were okay.”

In what has become a regular part of worship, Allen or another church member offers one of the published Armed Forces prayers for a specific branch of the service. “Yesterday, especially since the war had begun, I said that our prayers go out to our servicemen and to those standing for us.”

One of the Southern Baptist chaplains stationed at Fort Bliss was deployed to Kuwait and continues to provide Allen with updates from the battlefield. Another chaplain whose family has been attending Mountain View Baptist has found greater opportunity for ministry in time of war, Allen said. “He was the low man on the totem pole, but now he’s preaching all the time and soldiers are flocking to him to talk about the Lord, their relationship and possibly that they might die.”

“At the heart of it all is presence — the assurance that the Lord is there, with the mate and protecting all of them. Obviously, it’s tough in a war, knowing that a person could be killed. That’s the great sacrifice that may be made. We haven’t ignored that issue. We openly talk about it,” Allen explained.

Allen’s 14-year old son was killed in a rock-climbing accident and that experience has helped prepare him to minister to others who face sudden loss. “It prepared me mentally and emotionally for empathizing with people who have the possibility of losing someone that close. This is the first church I’ve served near a military presence and I believe it may be why the Lord put me here.”

Various church members “are trying in a variety of ways to minister however they are led as a situation presents itself,” Allen said of the support to military families. Two families from the church are linked up with a Fort Bliss family, including those that are not active in a local church, to provide practical help such as fixing cars, mowing yards or picking up kids to baby-sit, Allen said. A monthly Saturday night fellowship was begun to provide a meal and time of encouragement.

As a 48-year old pastor, Allen recognizes the contrast in the way the country has supported the troops during this war and the years he spent awaiting a draft notice in the early 1970s. “I had friends a little older who didn’t come back from Vietnam. I was scared, but I wasn’t a Christian then.”

After being saved while in college, Allen developed a biblical worldview from which he now draws a new understanding. “We live in a fallen world and when evil men rise up and do evil things, somebody’s got to stop them.”

Balancing the realities of Jesus’ Kingdom on earth versus the evil in the hearts of men, Allen said he offers assurance that “one day the earthly kingdom will be perfect and until then the Bible predicts it’s going to get worse before it’s better.” With that view in mind, he led his church to publicly pray for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“We prayed for his salvation, his turning over any weapons of mass destruction. We prayed for our president and that God would bring peace.” Since Hussein did not cooperate with U.N. demands, Allen said, “We fully agree with the action of our president and support him, believing at this moment he may be God’s instrument of righteousness in executing what Romans 13 describes as the sword in the hand of the authority.”

    About the Author

  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter