Faith takes flight

Living Word Fellowship in Oak Harbor is just one of several churches in the community that offers help to active duty military members. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

Oak Harbor is a military community from way back. For 70 years, sailors from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island have served their country in worldwide conflicts.

But sometimes even the men and women in uniform need a hand, and Oak Harbor area churches are reaching out in a variety of ways, including organized events and those less formal.

Jeff Spencer, pastor of Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, views both types of outreach as equally important. Although he’s been at the Oak Harbor location for only four months now, he sees military ministry as something that occurs naturally in the life of a congregation that seeks to express care for others.

“There are a lot of military families here,” he said. “Relocations seem to come in waves, but wherever these families may find themselves, they are a regular part of our prayer emphasis.”

From that emphasis flow other efforts. One involves a recognition of families who are transferring.

“We have something we call a ‘sending ceremony’, a sort of informally done farewell,” said Spencer. “It’s a time when we can recognize them, express our thanks, and wish them well at their next duty station. They can also leave us a forwarding address at that time so we can keep in touch with how they’re doing.”

Pastor Jeff Spencer, Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, says his church tries to be mindful of the needs of military families. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church, like others, has an informal network of members who try to be mindful of the on-going needs of military families, especially those who have a deployed spouse. Church members seek to encourage these families, and offer help if needed. Often they are prior military themselves, and have an understanding born of experience.

That is also true of Living Word Fellowship church. Its congregation includes a number of members who are active with the local Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, according to Associate Pastor Janelle Ibaven.

“What we have found is that these members involved with NMCRS can really relate to military families in a very empathetic way,” Ibaven said. “They are in a unique position to learn of someone’s needs, and see how our congregation can possibly address them.”

Ibaven also cited her church’s Christmas-time observance of what they have come to call Compassion Sunday.

“On Compassion Sunday, we try to connect military members to people in our church who can answer or help with a need,” she said.

Often, members become aware of needs and address them on their own. Ibaven cited an instance when members joined together to help a family whose fence had blown down in a windstorm.

Cmdr. Marc Eckardt leads worship recently at Living Word Fellowship in Oak Harbor. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

Even though much of Living Word’s focus relies on an informal approach, the church is always on the lookout for better ways to serve all its members, including the military.

In the past, the church sent out deployment care kits to service members.

The kits were one more way to show the congregation’s care for those away from home and family at the holidays.

In the same fashion, First Reformed Church in Oak Harbor seeks to share comfort this Easter by offering home-cooked meals to sailors with no family in the area.

The simple idea is the inspiration for a new ministry. The church’s goal is to eventually create an Adopt-a-Sailor program, said Lee Bradley, Navy Ministries director at First Reformed.

“Our pastor, Jon Brown, had an idea for Christian families to give relationships a personal touch by offering them within a framework of good home cooking and friendship,” Bradley said. “We hope to begin ‘HomeCooking for Heroes’ this Easter, and see it continue throughout the year.”

Lee Bradley and Joann Hoover, from First Reformed Church in Oak Harbor, are spearheading ‘Home Cooking for Heroes’ for Easter. Kathy Reed/Whidbey Crosswind

Bradley said the new ministry is coordinating its program with the Chaplain’s office on base.

An advertisement for the Home Cooking for Heroes Easter 2011 event depicts U.S. troops gathered in silent prayer on the deserts of Iraq.

The ad invites First Reformed families to “Adopt a hero this Easter” and to “bring them home for the holiday.”
One couple at First Reformed spoke out about their desire to do just that.

“This is one small way we can honor these young people serving their country,” said Joann Hoover. She and her husband, Mike, a retired Master Chief, have a son stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

“I know my boys always enjoyed being included in other families when they were away from home,” Hoover said.

Bradley is quick to credit “the hand of God” in bringing the Christian outreach to fruition at First Reformed. A retired Navy Senior Chief from NAS Whidbey, he said that good food “is a big thing with sailors.”

He and others at the church hope that opportunities for worship, fellowship, and what he calls “neighborliness” will result.

Future plans for First Reformed’s Navy ministry may someday even include the offer of “basic handyman-type services” to Navy families with members away on deployment, said Bradley.

It’s a goal the church will be discussing in conjunction with current ombudsman and Navy housing program directors.

“Our desire is to offer a group of vetted people who can help these families while the head of household is away serving their country,” said Bradley. “This could involve not only our church, but the whole community of Oak Harbor that’s willing to help our heroes at home.”