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Independence Day

AG congregation invites soldiers to church

By Christina Quick

As Americans make plans to celebrate our nation’s freedom, a church in Columbus, Ga., is celebrating the people who continue to fight for freedom around the world.

For the past three years, Evangel Temple Assembly of God has bused hundreds of Army troops from nearby Fort Benning for a special military appreciation service the Sunday before Independence Day.

Bud Rupel, an associate pastor at the church, keeps a stack of letters from soldiers who have attended the service and written to express their appreciation. They serve as a poignant reminder of the impact this event has on soldiers, the majority of whom are eventually deployed to Iraq.

One young man who asked the church to continue to pray for him wrote: “The sermon really relieved my worries about going to war as the pastor said, ‘The Lord knows what is best, and He is always on your side through thick and thin.’ ”

As a retired Army chaplain, Rupel is familiar with the stresses of military life and understands how uplifting a kind gesture can be.

“I spent 28 years in the military,” Rupel says. “I know how important it is to get that morale boost.”

The church goes out of its way to honor the special visitors. As the convoy of buses arrives, congregants line the street to greet the troops with cheers and waving flags. A banner outside the building reads, “Welcome soldiers.”

Following the service, the troops are treated to a bountiful meal, complete with a large selection of homemade desserts.

Fort Benning is an infantry installation. Most of the approximately 300 men who accept the invitation to church are enlistees completing basic training in preparation for assignments in Iraq. Many are still in their teens.

The young soldiers are often moved at the outpouring of support. Some choke back tears. Others remark it is the first time anyone has thanked them for their willingness to serve the country.

Rupel says because the soldiers are constantly exposed to criticism regarding the war in Iraq, positive gestures mean a lot.

“It’s not a popular war,” Rupel says. “The troops don’t get a lot of good feedback or thanks. The church needs to step to the forefront and say, ‘We appreciate what you’re doing.’ ”

One soldier wrote: “Seeing your congregation lined up along the street awaiting our arrival was very uplifting. The whole service touched my heart and revitalized my soul.”

Another infantryman said in a letter: “To be able to get away for an afternoon and enjoy a church service like that was a real blessing for me.”

The patriotic service includes a video and a musical tribute to the Armed Forces, followed by a sermon with a special military emphasis. This year’s speaker is Zollie Smith, a Vietnam veteran and the director of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions.

“Churches are in a position to make a significant impact in America by responding to the human need of our soldiers and their families,” Smith says. “The unique trials and tribulations of military life push these men, women and children to their limit. Through the support of the local church, however, they can know the peace that passes understanding and experience the love of Christ in their own lives.”

Scott McChrystal, military/VA representative for the Chaplaincy Department of the Assemblies of God, says he was impressed by the church’s efforts when he spoke at the event in 2006.

“Evangel Temple’s outreach to the soldiers at Fort Benning is strategic,” McChrystal says. “Year after year, they present the gospel message in tangible form — through worship, proclamation, food, fellowship and kindness. The Holy Spirit uses these efforts to transform the lives of many of these young patriots.”

The service always includes an invitation to receive Christ as Savior. Last year, nearly half of the soldiers in attendance responded.

“These soldiers are in a dangerous business,” Rupel says. “They will face a lot of stuff we can’t even imagine. Our goal is not only to say, ‘Thank you,’ but also to give them an opportunity to accept Christ and get things right with God. We have received letters from soldiers and parents from all over the country thanking us for doing that.”

A mom in Wisconsin last year e-mailed the church to express her thanks.

“We owe your congregation a debt of gratitude,” the woman wrote. “I have been touched that you as strangers would give such a gift to these boys.”

The soldiers who accept Evangel Temple’s invitation to the service are brought to church on military buses. The church pays the cost of the transportation. Some of the young men later return to church, though few are able to stay long before they are deployed.

The church is active in reaching out to members of the military throughout the year, sending letters and care packages to troops and ministering to their families.

Rahel Wing, who has attended Evangel Temple for two years, says her faith is what allows her to cope with her husband’s deployment in Iraq. Before becoming a Christian, she struggled with anxiety. Now, she says, she finds peace in her relationship with Christ and in the network of support the church provides.

“It’s so important to be connected with people who share your beliefs and values, with people who won’t judge you for having a bad day and will lift you up in a minute with a simple whisper of Scripture,” Wing says.

CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Refrigerator Art (

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