Those words, and the face of the Iraqi woman who said them, have stayed with me for nearly nine years. Since the day I stood in an old Anglican church in the heart of Baghdad, observing the worship of Iraqi Christians nine months into what would become a nine-year war, I've remembered her words. I think in some ways they were etched on my heart.
I never got her name. But I've never forgotten her eyes. They reflected hope -- a desire for freedom from dictators and an opportunity to worship without fear as she was doing that night.
A lot has happened since that moment. I don't know what her life has been like, whether today she would say the same, whether she might change anything if she could.
I don't know if Maher, the Christian Iraqi pastor photographer Jim Veneman and I met during our travels to Baghdad in 2003, would have changed anything. He and most of his family were killed just a couple of years after we met, returning home from a church conference they had attended in Jordan. Whether it was a religious killing or random violence, the authorities never determined. But before his death, from what I could piece together with help from another American who'd befriended the associate pastor at the church, also killed, Pastor Maher had made a difference. His church was growing and his congregation was making an impact in the community around them.
I missed the initial news reports this past week that our final troops had left Iraq. These days I listen more to people and less to pundits and I was busy with Christmas preparations. My husband, a Navy reservist for 15 years, just returned in August from his second deployment; it indeed will be a special Christmas this year, since he was away last year at this time.
Watching some of the later reports, I saw smiles and jubilant fist pumps as the media covered some of the troops leaving the Iraq border. The stories of 20-something soldiers looking forward to mom's apple pie for Christmas were sweet and touching. But the war for our military families isn't over. And I'm writing to ask that you don't mistakenly believe that it is.
While many of our troops are returning from missions to Iraq early and, yes, getting to enjoy the holidays with their families and loved ones, there are still many who are not yet home. Some are still in Iraq, apart from what the news reports tell you. Many continue to serve in Afghanistan -- and there is no end to that war anytime soon.
When I polled some military wives through our Wives of Faith ministry, happiness and elation were not the emotions that were shared. Instead, they spoke of worry and frustration that military families will be forgotten completely under the high-flying banner of "The War is Over." As one military wife said, "Even in peacetime, there are always troops in harm's way."
Certainly, a chapter is turning with our nation. We will be watching with held breath what happens in the nation of Iraq where so many of our brave American heroes gave their lives to help bring freedom and democracy to that land. We will continue to watch what our brave men and women do in Afghanistan. But as the chapter turns, and a new one begins to be written, churches and individuals alike still have an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to many tired, weary and, in some cases, hurting people.
So as a church, what can you do to help a veteran or service member currently serving this Christmas and beyond? How can you show support to a military family and let them know they are thought of and they are loved?
1. Provide spiritual support to meet veterans and their families' various needs. If you're part of a church, you have some wonderful opportunities to make a difference not just in one or two military families, but many in your community by opening your doors and letting them know they are welcome.
Start a ministry for military wives and/or military moms, or a group that specializes in supporting PTSD and combat-related struggles. (Military Ministry, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ, is a great place to start when looking for combat trauma resources. You may find that you not only reach the current veteran, but veterans of past wars as well, including our Vietnam vets.)
Invite them to your regular activities but consider also providing special activities just for them, such as Bible studies specifically on deployment or a meal for spouses and their children whose service members are away.
Encourage your small groups to adopt a military family or a single service member during his or her time away from home on deployment. Send care packages and cards, and let him or her know your group is praying. Now, more than ever, they need reminders that people appreciate what they're doing. Pray for military service members and families -- and let them know that they're being prayed for.
3. If you don't know a military service member or family, support an organization that does. There are some wonderful ministries and organizations out there that are making a tangible difference for our troops and their families. Soldiers Angels (soldiersangels.org) and Operation Homefront (operationhomefront.net) are just a couple, along with the ministry I lead, Wives of Faith (wivesoffaith.org), which is working to create a local group curriculum to provide churches the tools to support and serve military spouses in their churches and communities.
The war is not over. And I believe one of the greatest tools Satan uses to hurt and destroy is to conquer and divide -- by convincing people we are all alone. But none of us are alone when we have Jesus by our side. Take a moment today to think about what you can do to remind our military and their families of this very fact. And be the hands and feet of Jesus to a service member or veteran and their families today.
Sara Horn is the founder and president of Wives of Faith (wivesoffaith.org), a military wives ministry. She is a writer and author of several books including "GOD Strong: The Military Wife's Spiritual Survival Guide," "Tour of Duty: Preparing Our Hearts for Deployment" and her most recent, "My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife." Visit her website at sarahorn.com.
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