One day, a young veteran’s wife approached ministry leaders at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. She was struggling. Her husband, who served two tours in the Middle East, had been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.
The church needed a military ministry, she told them. If they didn’t start one, she would.
“That was good motivation,” said Ron Hughes, assistant pastor of pastoral care at Johnson Ferry.
It hastened the development of an idea from the church’s former senior pastor, Bryant Wright, over a decade ago, Hughes said.
“We’re just trying to find ways to encourage and engage – to serve,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how best to do that.”
One way is a support group offered by the church for women with a military connection. Between 12 and 20 women with loved ones who have served or are serving in the military meet monthly (currently on Zoom).
The Life After Fifties senior adult ministry at the church sponsors an annual Veterans Day banquet for around 200 people. This year, due to COVID-19 concerns, they hosted a Veterans Day parade, with participants remaining safely in their cars. Veterans paraded around the church parking lot lined with spectators while a jazz band played patriotic songs. The veterans were provided with boxed lunches while they listened to a presentation through their car radios.
The church engages in various projects to meet veterans’ practical needs, Hughes said.
One ongoing project is helping veterans sign up for Veteran Administration (VA) benefits. It’s a difficult process, Hughes said, but an important one. Whenever the veteran needs the VA’s services, it’s easier to get started if he or she is already registered.
The church is partnering with MUST Ministries, a local ministry which, as part of its supportive housing services for those experiencing homelessness, offers long-term housing for veterans. The ministry has asked for mentors to support the men in the program, which currently number around 16. Several men from the church have already signed up. “We hope that’s going to turn out to be something really long-term and lasting,” Hughes said.
The Cobb County Veterans Court is designed to help rehabilitate veterans who have mental health or substance abuse issues and are facing criminal charges. They participate in an 18-month treatment plan rather than traditional court processing. At the graduation celebrations, the church provides the food and presents participants who complete the program with challenge coins.
Due to local elections this year, the presiding judge will be changing, so they aren’t sure what the court will look like in the future. But that’s part of ministry, Hughes said.
“All of these various projects and things we’ve done have had good benefits,” he said. “We also know it’s moving and changing, so we have to be ready for whatever God brings to us.”
Building relationships in military communities can provide opportunities in unexpected ways, he said.
A church member had built relationships at nearby Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some cruise ship passengers who had been exposed to the virus were quarantined at the base. When the church asked how they could help, leadership at the base asked if they could provide a speaker to encourage the people. That first week, they were able to speak to 400 people in quarantine via phone.
“It was a great opportunity to share Christ – a simple devotional message, and then being available if people had questions,” Hughes said. “So building those relationships with the military, even at the reserve base here, sometimes provides unexpected opportunities for ministry.”
He said ministering to veterans constantly evolves to fit the needs of the changing population.
Older veterans have needs related to their age, such as health issues. But connecting to younger veterans has been a bigger challenge than they had anticipated, Hughes said.
“What I’ve noticed is the younger guys that are veterans don’t tend to hold onto that [identity] as much,” he said. “They’re sort of, ‘I served, I’m out, I’m moving on.’ Whereas the older veterans – Vietnam veterans, some of the older ones – that’s a real identity for them.
“The challenge of the younger veterans is, how do you connect with them and help them – and it may not be through a military ministry. But we’re just trying to look at any avenue that we can both engage our current military veterans that are in our church and see what’s out there. And the Lord has opened up some doors that we really didn’t know were going to happen.”
Ultimately, they want to help veterans find their purpose as they minister to others, Hughes said.
“It’s just trying to find out how we can best minister to the veterans and engage veterans we have in ministry to others. Not just to be taken in, but to really give out to others,” he said. “They have a lot to give.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rebecca Manry is a communications specialist for the SBC Executive Committee.)