Worship in a war zone
There are no atheists — or communion cups — in foxholes.
When Gary Coburn accompanies troops on missions, he takes a chaplain’s kit that includes a small cross, a tray for unleavened bread and one cup for grape juice.
“Everyone comes forward and dips a cracker in the grape juice and then eats it,” said Colburn, a member of the Palo Verde church in Tucson, Ariz. “It isn’t what I’m accustomed to, but its all we can do while in the field.”
Coburn, an Air Force chaplain stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq, is one of hundreds of church members who have hundreds of church members who have served in the Middle East since the war on terror began.
Some are chaplains who provide counseling and spiritual support to the troops. Others are soldiers who find time to preach sermons and lead singing between patrols on the deadly streets of Baghdad.
“Reminders of our mortality are ever-present,” said Duncan Baugh, an Army chaplain serving in Iraq. “Walking through the valley of the shadow of death is no longer an abstract concept, but rather a constant awareness.”
The ability for Christians to worship together is “vital, life-sustaining,” said Roy Comer, an Army major stationed at Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad in the volatile Sunni Triangle.
“In the midst of so much darkness, the Lord’s body is a light unto our path,” said Comer, whose home congregation is the New Harvest church in Montgomery, Ala.
Christian soldiers also are sharing their faith. At the Camp Fallujah church, Gunnery Sgt. Jay Spriggs recently baptized fellow Marine Molly Dennis in an abandoned fountain near the base.
“We can thank Saddam Hussein for building this makeshift baptistery,” Spriggs wrote in an e-mail to church members back home. “This gives a literal spin on the hymn There’s a Fountain Free.”
LAY DOWN YOUR BURDENS — AND YOUR KEVLAR
The Taji Church of Christ meets in a maintenance compound built halfway underground.
Sgt. Steve Valentine worshiped with the congregation, which ranged from nine to 25 soldiers most Sundays, during a 15-month deployment to Iraq.
The paint on the concrete walls was cracked and peeling, Valentine said. The acoustics were terrible. The church didn’t get an air conditioner until halfway through his tour — despite temperatures of up to 137 degrees.
“Yet, to me, that was one of the most beautiful church buildings I’ve ever been in,” said Valentine, an Army reservist and member of the Southgate church in San Angelo, Texas. “God was right when he told David that he does not dwell in a house.”
Church members go through what Valentine called a “disrobing ceremony” when they meet — stripping off heavy flack vests and Kevlar helmets and laying their M-16 rifles in a corner.
It’s a similar process at Balad Air Base, where “we have more weaponry than most small police departments have back in the States,” said Coburn, who preaches most Sundays. (“I make sure I always finish on time!” he added.)
Serving in the Middle East “is like the movie Groundhog Day, where every day is just like the one before it,” Coburn said. “We tend to work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and when we come together on Sunday it is our only break away from our jobs the whole week.”
At least six Churches of Christ meet on military installations in Iraq. Soldiers must get permission from a chaplain, who provides a room and meeting time.
Five chaplains serving in Iraq are from Churches of Christ, said Jim Maxwell, chaplaincy endorser at the Fairfax, Va., church. These chaplains often help Churches of Christ, but they have additional counseling and ministerial duties, sometimes to thousands of soldiers.
And they’re not everywhere. There are no Church of Christ chaplains in Afghanistan, Maxwell said. As a result, many soldiers become preachers.
Maj. Keith Collier, an Air Force personnel officer, was unable to find a Church of Christ when he arrived at the International Zone in Baghdad last February. He printed a flyer that read, “Living in the IZ and searching for fellow members of the Church of Christ.”
With the chaplain’s approval, Collier and a few church members started meeting. Now the church has a dozen members, he said.
During the first Gulf War, church members in the United States “boxed up crackers, grape juice, raisins … and sent them to every address we had,” said Don Yelton, director of American Military Evangelizing Nations, a support ministry for church members in the armed services.
But now most soldiers have access to e-mail and can send specific requests to churches back home.
Collier orders communion supplies online. Churches in the United States donated songbooks to the church in the International Zone. But before they arrived Collier printed lyrics off the Internet. He also uses church Web sites to research sermons.
James Baker, a chief warrant officer with the Army’s Stryker Brigade Combat team in Iraq, gets sermon ideas from his wife, Melody, thousands of miles away in Tacoma, Wash.
“I generally don’t have a great deal of time to prepare a sermon, so I jot down some ideas and Scriptures on a 3-by-5 card and go from there,” Baker said.
REAL FAITH IN A SURREAL PLACE
“Why good people die” is a common sermon topic, George Wallace said. The chaplain at Camp Liberty in Iraq spoke about his ministry while preparing a memorial service for a corporal killed by an improvised explosive device.
“He left behind a wife who is seven months pregnant,” Wallace said. “Soldiers need courage and inspiration to keep going out there.”
Sermons in the Middle East can be powerful — not only because of the realities of life and death, but also because of the proximity of biblical sites. Iraq once was the seat of the Babylonian empire, and some scholars believe that the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were the site of the Garden of Eden itself.
“You can’t beat standing close to the Euphrates in person,” said Augustine Odii-Abia, a chaplain stationed at Camp Slayer in Iraq. “No message, no preacher can deliver the personal feeling I had that day.”
The Middle East also provides church members with many opportunities for spiritual growth, said Capt. Dan Hunter, an Air Force logistics officer stationed in southern Afghanistan and a member of the church in Mountain Home, Idaho.
“Serving in a war zone is an experience somewhat hard to explain, but as a Christian, I have a sense of peace that I feel others may not have,” Hunter said.
“Our Forward Operating Base has been hit with mortars 32 times since our arrival, yet not once do I remember having a feeling of hopelessness or extreme fear.
“This is not because I have some ‘Sergeant Rock’ type persona. I know completely it’s because I have the shield of God protecting me, and some things are just beyond my control.”