CLARKSVILLE, Tenn.—If your congregation is seeking ways to reach out to military families, New Providence United Methodist Church, on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, might inspire you.
Just six miles from the Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky, New Providence is home to many retired soldiers and their families. They know what it is like to have a spouse or parent absent for a year or more. They know how it is to celebrate birthdays with Mom or Dad deployed thousands of miles from home. They resonate with the frustration of a car that won’t budge and the pressure of caring for children 24/7.
They understand because they’ve been there.
Through the Eagle’s Wings ministry, New Providence matches military families with “sponsors”—members of the congregation who act as friends, confidants and, often, surrogate grandparents, aunts and uncles.
This ministry is just one example of how United Methodists reach out to troops and their families. Honoring veterans is the focus of America’s Sunday Supper, slated for Jan. 20, 2013. Inspired by the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., America’s Sunday Supper invites people from diverse backgrounds to come together to share a meal, discuss issues that affect their community and highlight the power each one of us has to make a difference.
Over the past two years, tens of thousands of soldiers have come home from war . . . to heal from wounds both visible and invisible, to face unemployment, a lack of housing and other domestic challenges.
“Now is the time to give back,” the Rethink Church website says. “Raise awareness in your community, and do something to address the needs of veterans and military families.”
Rethink Church, part of United Methodist Communications, is lining up 250 volunteer leaders to coordinate events and 6,500 volunteers to participate in a variety of outreach opportunities on or around Jan. 20.
New Providence’s event, planned for Jan. 11, set as its goal to equip and offer resources to train additional volunteers to work with members of the military and their families. Workshops at the event:
• Exposed area ministry representatives to the agencies and resources available on post.
• Provided training and information about children and family issues surrounding deployment, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
• Offered networking opportunities for agencies and ministries.
• Invited participants to continue the conversation by sharing obstacles they encounter when trying to minister with this demographic.
Along with New Providence Church, United Methodist congregations in Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin have registered events with Rethink Church.
Easing the transition
In Hawaii, the Aiea United Methodist Church community will host a fellowship barbecue to honor those who have served and continue to serve. Two Indiana congregations—Redkey and Mount Tabor, Dunkirk—will present $5 McDonald’s meal cards to the first 300 veterans or active soldiers who attend their Jan. 19 event. Throughout the new year, Aldersgate UMC in Worcester, Mass., will reconnect veterans with their community through outreach and support. The goal is to help troops make the transition back into everyday living.
A training event is on the agenda for St. Paul UMC, Hattiesburg, Miss. The activity will nurture communication skills and encourage respect for all people. In Cameron, N.C., the congregation of Solid Rock UMC will gather for a Sunday meal to share ways members can make a difference through economic empowerment, support for families of active-duty military, emergency aid and improving community well-being. New Washington UMC in Ohio will hold a series of events on Jan. 27 to affirm and support returning troops and their families and to raise awareness of the challenges they face.
Ways for your church to support military families
• Celebrate birthdays of soldiers and their family members. Have a birthday party for a child whose parent is deployed.
• Open church activities to military families. Bible studies, Sunday school classes and youth groups acquaint newcomers with longtime members and give military families a safe place to share their stories. Beyond the Yellow Ribbon—Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans, a Bible study available from Cokesbury, is a great place to start.
• Provide free babysitting for children in military families, both during and after deployment. Give a sole caregiver a break or a reunited couple a night out.
• Remember simple things such as a weekly phone call to ask how things are going and to offer a listening ear.
• Send care packages to active troops. Letters, drawings and photos from the church family are fun and easy to do. It’s a wonderful way to involve children.
Three congregations—Waverly and Willow Grove in Pennsylvania and Columbus in Wisconsin—plan special meals open to the community. Freewill offerings will assist veterans and military families. Preparing for future service projects with military families is on the docket for St. George’s United Methodist Church, Fairfax, Va.
Reaching out to the military is “as easy as loving your own family,” said Donna Markel, who chairs the Eagle’s Wings project at New Providence Church. “It’s hard enough for a soldier not to be there, but to know that someone’s wrapped their arms around their family back home and is with them is just a tremendous thing.”
Answering the call
Bill Wheeler, an Eagle’s Wings sponsor and the congregation’s lay leader, entered the Army in 1953 during the Korean conflict. He retired in 1974. “We sponsor those families to show our love and appreciation to the soldiers that serve our country,” he explained.
Catherine Leigh Harwell is married to a military police officer. She believes something as simple as cooking a meal for a military family so the spouse doesn’t have to make another McDonald’s run is a true gift. “Just something as small as that,” she said, “will drag more people in the [church] door than you can even imagine.”
The Rev. Billy Joe “B.J.” Brack, who serves the Clarksville congregation, added, “I think it’s what God calls us to do. We’re supposed to be opening our doors to whoever’s out there. And if you’re around a military base, these people . . . have hurts and pains.
“We’re all in this together.”