Church tends to families as Guard deploys

Published 2:17 am Monday, January 26, 2009

HAMLET, N.C. (AP) — With spaghetti boiling and meat sauce simmering in the church’s kitchen, the Rev. Chris Hawks welcomed members of his congregation to their regular Wednesday night meal and kept an eye on the door.

He’d issued a standing invitation to the families of the 76 soldiers in E Company, the town’s National Guard unit, which is training for a yearlong tour of Iraq that starts this spring.

‘‘We invited them to eat supper with us, and I want to make them feel welcome,’’ said the 36-year-old leader of Second Baptist Church.

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The church making more than pasta in its effort to care for E Company’s families: Hawks is setting up a domestic 911 force to spring to action when a soldier’s wife’s car breaks down, a brother’s water heater goes or a daughter’s faucet starts to leak. The church members, along with neighbors and others, are doing their best to tend to the everyday duties on the home front while the troops are away, just like so many communities have done.

‘‘Guys usually take care of things when they go amok,’’ said Jimmy Stricklin, 62, a retired CSX locomotive electrician and the church’s Mr. Fix-it. ‘‘This is our way to show a sense of caring and support for those people fighting for our freedom.’’

The work is almost as important for the soldiers training to fight half a world away. Worries about what’s happening at home can creep into their minds, taking their focus off the dangers they’ll face in Iraq. Knowing someone is watching over their family eases the concern.

‘‘They want to know everything is being taken care of,’’ said Ronda Jones, whose husband Jason is a member of E Company and served with the unit during its last deployment to Iraq. ‘‘The last thing they need to do is worry about little things back home. … They know if something goes wrong, there are people in the community willing to help.’’

Hawks grew up in Hamlet, friends with several men who went on to join E Company, the engineer company of the 120th Combined Arms Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina National Guard. The Associated Press is chronicling the experiences of the company, their families and their town as they train for and serve in Iraq.

E Company’s training started in December, broke for a few days at Christmas, and resumed this month at Mississippi’s Camp Shelby. They’ll get one last stop at home before leaving in April for Iraq.

Several E Company families already make a habit of the Wednesday dinner at Second Baptist, though on this recent night, it was just Jackie Webb and her two daughters. Jackie is a regular: She and her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Webb, belong to the church and have known Hawks since high school. As teenagers, they worked in the same hardware store and hung out with the same friends.

‘‘How are you doing?’’ Hawks asked Jackie.

‘‘Hanging in there,’’ she said.

A manager of three bank branches, Jackie often works late. No big deal when Brian was around to help out around the house — cooking dinner, watching the kids and helping with their homework. Since he left, Jackie has to juggle work and home as a suddenly single mom of two young daughters and a 16-year-old stepson.

Church volunteers recently showed up at her door with a home-cooked dinner. They’re also ready to provide free day care one day a week, so mothers such as Jackie can go grocery shopping or just have time to themselves. Among the volunteers: retired English teacher Francis Altman, who was surprised to discover the husband of a former student serves with E Company.

‘‘It gave me a real connection,’’ she said. ‘‘Some of these people don’t have a church or family to depend on when their husband is deployed. We have to take care of them.’’

Hawks was a pastor at a church in suburban Charlotte when he said he felt called to return to Hamlet last year, for reasons even he didn’t understand.

Then he learned from Brian Webb that his unit had received orders for Iraq. Hawks wondered what his own wife would do if he disappeared for a year: How would his family get by?

Hawks started working with Jones, the coordinator of E Company’s family readiness group, who serves as a liaison of sorts between families and the Guard. Hawks sees the work with the company as a test of the small church’s commitment to its faith.

‘‘The life of a Christian is putting others lives over yours,’’ he said at a table surrounded by 50 people eating spaghetti, salad and garlic bread. ‘‘It is more than just coming and sitting through a service once a week. We have an opportunity — albeit it a small window of opportunity — to affect somebody’s life for eternity.’’

So far the congregation has responded, with more volunteers than families in need. Stricklin, the handyman, knows the calls will come, during the day and in the middle of the night. And he can’t wait.

‘‘I’m not looking for any reward. I’m not looking for money,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m just looking to help.’’