Fifteen months have passed since Operation Iraqi Freedom first launched, but thousands of soldiers are still stationed in the volatile nation, keeping the peace and serving the newly established democratic government of Iraq. These soldiers – many of whom are in their late teens and early twenties – have expressed that the hardest part of serving abroad is not the physical weariness, but rather the lack of opportunities to communicate with loved ones. Therefore, to assist these soldiers on the frontline, the United Methodist Church teamed up with the Endorsing Agency and the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, to print, package and send hundreds of international phone cards to Iraq.
According to United Methodist Chaplain Frank A. Yerkes, “the cards have been an awesome blessing.”
“It makes such a difference when soldiers can call home and talk to their loved ones. What a wonderful gift! It makes me proud to represent our United Methodist family here on the frontlines in Baghdad,” continued Yerkes.
Laura Flippen, communications coordinator for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry that oversees chaplains and pastoral counselors, said messages such as as Yerkes’ comes in daily.
“It is important that the troops know that there are people who care about them, even people who they may not know personally but who care about the human side of being away from home, of being under stressful conditions,” said Chaplain Bob Phillips, a Navy chaplain on active duty in Norfolk, Va., and a member of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
The UMC reported that the most recent package of phone cards have been mailed to the soldiers today, August 20. Unlike past cards, however, these phone cards include a new card design that features the United Methodist Cross and Flame and the message “Open hearts, Open minds, Open Doors. The people of the United Methodist Church” in the front.
When soldiers use the cards, they will hear a recorded message that says, “The people of the United Methodist Church are praying for your safety and sense of peace. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open to you.”
Chaplain Bob Phillips said he believes “having the cards with the United Methodist brand on them is totally appropriate, it is not proselytizing, there is nothing at all negative about it.”
The Rev. Patricia Barrett, an executive with the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, hopes the United Methodist phone cards will be seen as an invitation to visit a United Methodist church.
“I hope there are lots of young men and women who come back and may have not had a church home before but will remember there is such a thing as the United Methodist Church and maybe finding themselves going into one of the churches and becoming part of the community,” she said.
Chaplain (Capt.) Howard S. Bell, Air Force reserve chaplain with the 375th Air Wing at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois had similar sentiments.
“It is a recognizable trademark (the Cross and Flame) and when they (soldiers) come back home they can say ‘That is the church that thought of us and cared,” he said.
On August 18, members of the Illinois conference came to Nashville to present their collection of cards and money for the cause. In total, the gifts amounted to more than 800,000 minutes in calling time.
“We figure at this point we have contributed enough (phone card minutes) to provide an hour-long phone call home to every member of an entire light infantry division (about 1,400 people),” said the Rev. Bob Morwell, pastor of Union United Methodist Church, Quincy, Ill to the United Methodist News Service. “The conference is still working toward their goal of raising 1 million minutes.”
Morwell also emphasized the importance of the connectional system in the United Methodist Church.
“This is something a connectional church could do with tremendous speed and power,” he said. “The cards arrived today, they will be in the hands of chaplains in 10 days or less and they will be distributing these cards throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I certainly hope other conferences will join in the effort and that our troops and their families will know that the United Methodist Church has great concern and compassion and respect for them and if they have other pastoral needs, maybe they will think of us.”