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For 35 years, the Northwest Church of Christ in Lawton, Okla., conducted a weekly assembly for soldiers at Fort Sill, church leaders say.
But just before Christmas, the U.S. Army post’s chaplain suspended the services, “taking away the religious freedom of our soldiers,” said Northwest member Don Cherry, who had led the ministry for 10 years.
“The Armed Forces Chaplain Board (AFCB) has mistakenly categorized the Churches of Christ as a Protestant denomination,” Cherry said in an e-mail to The Christian Chronicle. “By lumping us with Protestants, the Army may utilize chaplains of Protestant denominations to conduct our services. We consider ourselves as a ‘distinctive faith group.'”
In general, Churches of Christ believe in simple, Bible-based Christianity. Congregations in the loose-knit fellowship of 12,447 congregations and 1.6 million adherents nationwide are autonomous with no denominational hierarchy or headquarters.
Cherry said the services averaged about 80 soldiers and two baptisms every Sunday. The assemblies tended to the soldiers’ spiritual needs, he said, with singing, communion and gospel preaching. The soldiers are “trainees unable to leave the post for worship,” he said.
“Usually, 40 percent of the folks attending would already be members of the church, but we had many who showed up seeking the truth,” Cherry said. “The drill sergeants were even amazed when they would bring over a couple of troops and the number would grow every week.”
Johnny Sandmann, military and veterans affair caseworker for U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, contacted the Army on the church’s behalf.
In a letter to Sandmann, U.S. Army Col. Paul Hossenlopp defended suspending the Church of Christ assembly after three-plus decades. Garrison Commander Hossenlopp wrote:
Army Regulation 165-1 governs who may conduct services on military installations. The Department of the Army preference is for Army Chaplains to provide religious services to our Soldiers. This allows Soldiers to bond with the religious leader who will be with their unit while deployed, and who has a special relationship to their command. However, when there is a need for services that the assigned Army chaplains cannot meet, civilians may volunteer to provide those services as Distinctive Faith Group Leaders (DFGL).
Army regulation requires that civilians wishing to act as a DFGL submit a request for approval through the installation chaplain to the Armed Forces Chaplain Board (AFCB). The AFCB requires that the potential DFGL document the need for the requested distinctive faith group service. Thus, only if Soldiers request a service that Army chaplains could not provide would the installation chaplains be able to support a request for designation as a DFGL. In this case, there has not been a request from any Soldier for a distinctive faith group service that is not currently being met. Services for different faiths are provided across the installation.
Cherry said the Army never mentioned the need for soldier requests:
The gist of the letter seemed to be that they had no requests for a Church of Christ service and that was why we were removed! I was dumbfounded. In November, had I been asked for requests from trainees I could have had 80 a week. Now this colonel said there were no requests for us.
On its website, the Northwest church has posted a plea for the services to resume.
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