Soldiers gather for gospel service in Iraq
They were raised in Protestant churches in places like Chicago and New York and Miami, small towns across the South and even as far away as Trinidad.
But on this Sunday, near Baqouba, Iraq, dozens of soldiers came together, laid down their weapons in makeshift pews, and settled in for a two-hour gospel service that offered a rare break from their daily duties in the battle-scarred and sun-baked desert.
Sgt. Courtney Black, 23, of Columbia, S.C., led the choir in an opening song: “I came here to clap my hands — I came here to stomp my feet — I came here to shout for joy.”
Moments later, Capt. Tommie Pickens stepped up to the plywood pulpit and welcomed soldiers to the service.
“I don’t know what you came here to do, but if you came here to praise the Lord, you’ve come to the right place,” said Pickens, a 43-year-old chaplain and native of Chicago.
Like at many bases in Iraq, Sunday gospel services see by far the largest turnout among the weekly religious programs. More than 70 people turned out for the nearly two-hour service at Camp Warhorse, compared to roughly a dozen for the two other Protestant services and about 20 for the Catholic services.
Many soldiers say they attend church downrange for a sense of normalcy. At the same time, however, the testimonials rendered here clearly reflected life in a war zone.
“I was injured in a bomb explosion a few weeks ago,” Staff Sgt. Antwan Austin, 26, of Miami, Fla., told the room of soldiers. “I was able to make a quick recovery and I made it back to Warhorse last night and I’d like to praise God.”
The left side of Austin’s body was showered with shrapnel on Aug. 23 when a suicide bomber struck an Iraqi dining facility in the nearby city of Al-Khalis.
Maj. Keith Hayes of Columbia, S.C., recalled his frustration when an Iraqi contractor he works with was kidnapped.
“I was kind of mad and upset, wondering if he was going to be returned, or be in a video getting his head chopped off,” Hayes stood up and told the other soldiers.
“And I prayed and I thought ‘It’s in God’s hands now. He’ll return when God is ready for him to return,’” Hayes said.
“And a couple of days later, he returned — a little beat up, but he’s OK,” Hayes said, followed by a round of applause.
Spc. Diana Layne, a 24-year-old native of Trinidad who later moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., stood up and talked about how her faith recently helped her through trying times.
“The last couple weeks have been real rough. My grandfather died on my birthday. He raised me and he was like the only father figure in my life,” she said, her voice cracking as she spoke to the congregation.
For Layne, enemy fire finally prompted her to take up a friend’s suggestion that she began each day by reading Psalm 23.
“Last Sunday, that’s when they had those mortar rounds, and that was when I started reading Psalm 23. Now I’m just thankful for those people that God put in my direction,” she said.
Turnout for the Gospel service began to top 100 people shortly after the 3rd Infantry Division soldiers arrived in January from Fort Benning, Ga. The crowd quickly overflowed the chapel here and the service was moved to the base’s movie theater, a plywood structure that seats up to 150.
For many soldiers, the daily threats of life in Iraq lend a new urgency to developing their faith.
“You kind of think, ‘I need to get myself straight, right, because that mortar just hit a 100 feet away,’” said Spc. Dondelyn Davis-McQueen, 21, of Yonkers, N.Y.
For some, deployment in Iraq has sparked a new commitment to attending church.
“When I was growing up, I went to church all the time. But then I started hanging with the wrong crowd,” said Sgt. Gregory Davis, 25, from Tifton, Ga.
A friend here in the Army encouraged David to start coming to the gospel service several months ago, and he believes it has made him more patient in his daily work.
“Everybody here gets a little antsy, they get quick-tempered. This helps keep me calm,” Davis said.
For 1st Sgt. Ray Daniels, 37, from Americas, Ga., church here is the same as it is back home, except here he attends without his wife, his 4-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
Spc. Natasha David who grew up in Brownville, N.Y., said going to church helps her to dismiss any fears about the dangers of living in a combat zone.
“I have faith, so I know that nothing is going to happen to me,” David said.