KILLEEN, Texas – "About 75 percent of our church is directly related to the military."
Joe Rich, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas, believes ministering to the families of the deployed congregants is a powerful labor of love.
"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."
The church offers emotional and financial support for the wives of the soldiers as part of their ministry; Sara Allison, wife of 1st Lt. Brian Allison of the Signal Corps in the U.S Army, prepares for her husband’s departure.
"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."
Memorial Baptist Church has developed a stradegy of ministry to families for times of war.
Pastor Rich, who was with Memorial Baptist since 1992 says the wives who had the same expeience of sending their husbands to war, are now comforting and reaching out to people like Sara Allison.
"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, who was deployed early January, had been concerned about leaving his wife and three children without a means of transportaion. However, soon after the Church heard of their situation, $1,000 was donated to meet their need.
"The church has been awesome," said Mrs. White. "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."
Memorial Baptist uses the church’s Sunday School and deacon ministries to meet the families’ needs.
"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."
There are even weekly meetings for wives who pray for their husband’s safe return. "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."
"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."
In the meetings, women give and gain advice, encouragement, and even comradery.
Mrs. White, an elder member of the gathering, says that though her husband served in Desert Storm and Kuwait, this time it 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 arms of the church streches further than ministering to military families. Mermorial Baptists’ food distribution center provides groceries, food baskets and clothes to families with low to moderate incomes.
Last year, the church served more than 400 families a month with 1.2 million pounds of food. Several part-time employees and 35 volunteers help the cause.
"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," said Retire Lt. Col. Dick Chapin, one of the volunteers.
Noting that 35-45 percent of the reciepts go to military families, Chapin said the church provides financial counseling assistnce in conjunction with physical goods to a number of families, especially when their husbands are in combat.
Although military personnel receive tax free income during watime, their overall income drops because they lose the part time jobs they held during peacetime.
"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.
Although it may seem that the number of attendants would decrease during wartime, for Memorial Baptist, there has been a great revival of spiritual awareness. Their mid January revival was very successful with 164 professions of faith; the featured evangelist even returned for the early February revival.
"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,” said Rich.
"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."
However, with such a big part of the community departing, all members of church are feeling the emotional struggles, including Pastor Rich.
"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."
Rich believes that at the height of accelerated deployment, the best thing churches can do is to specifically pray for the soldiers by name and get in contact with their 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.
By Pauline C.