Feature

Down Range Faith

An Anchorage church shines a light for our warriors

By and

Nearly 2,500 soldiers will come “home” from Afghanistan this year to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, an Air Force/Army base in Anchorage, Alaska—and the Alliance Christian Fellowship (ACF) will be there to provide military-specific ministry for war-weary troops. Daily exposure to attack and death leaves invisible wounds, and many bring the battle home with them. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a study of veterans returning from Iraq showed that “27 percent met criteria for alcohol abuse and were at increased risk for related harmful behavior,” a situation that affects the warriors’ friends and loved ones as well.

ACF is reaching hundreds of military families in the suburb of Eagle River, meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people like Joe, who was deployed for a year in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force. “The culture at my job is all about drinking,” he says. “It’s cool to be the drunkest person, and I wanted to be cool.”

Joe, his wife, Shanna, and their children began attending ACF before his deployment because his son began asking questions about Jesus and God while attending a Lutheran preschool. “We didn’t know the answers,” Joe admits. “We had seen the ACF sign, so we decided to try it.”

After his tour of duty in Iraq, Joe and his family returned to ACF, where he asked Pastor Rod Poepping how to answer his son’s questions. “Pastor Rod gave the answers I needed to guide my son,” beams Joe. “Things were going well; I was going to church and reading my Bible.”

Holy Intervention

But Joe succumbed to temptation when he was on temporary duty in California. “I was drunk for the entire three weeks. I was ashamed; I didn’t want to read my Bible or call my family. I was drinking nonstop and acting like a fool. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t want to go home.”

Shanna was angry and refused to pick up Joe at the airport when he returned. “She had lost all faith in me,” Joe laments. “My drinking had been the major problem during our nine years of marriage.”

Shanna called one of ACF’s elders and explained what was going on. He went to the airport and took Joe home with him. Shanna and the elder’s wife joined the men the next morning to discuss Joe’s actions. “The counseling session really didn’t help,” he says. “I still wanted to go drink.”

Later that night, Joe had a change of heart when he witnessed a transformation in Shanna. “We were having a conversation that, normally, would have caused Shanna to become hysterical at what I was telling her,” Joe says. “But I could see that she was filled with the Holy Spirit, because she sat calmly and listened to me tell her things that I had done, that she’d never heard. It was proof to me that the Holy Spirit was real.”

Joe and Shanna joined ACF’s course of Celebrate Recovery, a biblically based program developed by Saddleback Church that helps people overcome painful issues and addictions. “There are no words to describe how [this outreach] helped me,” Joe says. “To see high-ranking military and church leaders giving testimonies of how God is helping them to work through their problems was such a relief. I knew I wasn’t alone in my struggles. It’s OK for me to say I have a problem because they have problems, too, and they are working through [them].”

h3.Warriors Reaching Warriors

ACF has developed its own armed forces mission statement: “Military ministry exists to welcome and embrace military [personnel] and their families and to fulfill the Great Commission by equipping them to take the good news of Jesus with them to their next assignment.”

“Some churches specifically don’t reach out to military families because they know they will lose them due to the transient nature of their jobs,” says Pastor Poepping. “We choose to use the word ‘sending’ rather than ‘losing.’ We are sending them out to be light in their next assignment. We consider ourselves more of a missions-sending agency than a church.”

But discipleship comes first, through ministries designed to build trusting relationships with families like Joe’s. To address important issues for those in the armed forces, ACF focuses on three main stressors of military families: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), marriage and money.

Soldiers suffering from PTSD can make the initial contact for help through Bridges to Healing (BTH), an annual event for chaplains, military personnel and spouses.

Follow-up takes place through small-group Bible studies, using BTH curriculum, that provide ongoing support for healing and accountability.

Spouses are subjected to long separations, and this stress is compounded by the emotional state of returning loved ones. Small gatherings, called life groups, offer a safe place for couples who are struggling or need the fellowship of people from the military culture.
“My wife and I have clung to our life group,” says Joe. “It was my life group leader who showed me so much love and grace after the California trip.”

ACF sends its military members as missionaries, commissioning them to take the light of Jesus into the battlefield,” Pastor Poepping says. “We equip and train them to reach fellow soldiers for Christ and support them through praying, sending care packages regularly and assisting their families at home. We call this outreach to our deployed church members ‘down range faith.’”

Joe is being trained now, so he will be ready for his next assignment. “I know now that I’m called to be light,” he says. “Wherever I’m stationed, I need to be the light for people who are in dark places.”

Called to Serve

Military families are often under emotional and financial stress. This is especially true during deployments and other types of separations, which strain relationships and affect marriages and children. What can Alliance churches do? “Prayer is the primary work of God’s people”! Certainly, this is of utmost importance. Any church must discern God’s leading in this area. But in the midst of calling out to God in intercession for our servicemen and -women, Alliance churches, even those not located near a military base, can develop vital armed forces ministries. There are military members in many communities serving with reserve and National Guard units. The need for this enriching ministry is great. The vision for such outreach may come from a mother or a father whose child is deployed or in training in a difficult environment or from families who are left behind. Alliance churches are blessing many, and God receives honor in this process. There are many helpful sites and organizations to assist congregations in understanding this ministry. Blueprints for developing a military ministry can be found at: http://acfak.org/location/military or www.militaryministry.org. Leaders of Alliance churches wishing to establish a military ministry may contact me or an Alliance chaplain connected to someone in the congregation. —Rev. Robert W. Collins II, Chaplain (LTC) U.S. Army (retired) and executive director, Alliance Chaplain Ministries (e-mail: rcollins2@hot.rr.com)

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