It may be the ultimate irony of the conflict with Iraq that to glimpse the difficult home lives of our soldiers, their spouses, and their children, America needs a foreign war. And even as those lives rise from obscurity, we have heard about the front-line fighters much more than the base-bound families, especially the youngest, many of whom are poor and do, on occasion, go hungry. Proof of their need is how high the compassion index shot up this spring in San Diego. A half-dozen outreach groups and food drives were organized, among them Operation Homefront and Navy Wives Food Locker, to assist families. Some groups, however, are always on watch.
One such is Military Outreach Ministries, sponsored by the county’s 33 Presbyterian churches and the Presbytery of San Diego. Begun in the early 1960s as Military Parish Visitors, the original band of volunteer women visited military bases, in times of war and peace, to ask wives about their needs. Today, the Ministries — its name now forms the acronymic MOM — runs biweekly food supplements and weekly bread drives to women and their children who are surviving on an enlisted man’s salary.
On the fourth Wednesday of every month one food ministry begins at Camp Elliott, a little-used storage wing of the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, just east of I-15. There, a half-dozen long, low warehouses are stocked with pallets of goods for various military exchanges. One warehouse, its high cobwebbed rafters the seasoned wood of a half-century, is home to an acre’s worth of material collected by the Ministries, all aimed at young families — baby strollers, cribs, blankets, mattresses, stuffed animals, furniture, lamps, straight-back and cushy chairs, and more.
From the dock, Aline Bradley, one of the Ministries’ four team leaders, is handing me small boxes of still-cold veggie dogs, donated by Vons. It is late March, and war with Iraq has begun. I am putting the dogs in the trunk of a volunteer’s car. Soon these and other food items will be delivered in three vehicles to military families in Serra Mesa; four other vehicles are headed with the same bounty for El Cajon and Chula Vista.
Bradley is an animated woman of 36, whose tousled long black hair and French accent give her an exotic cast. When I acknowledge her accent, she replies, “Yes, I’m sorry, I’m from France,” an apology for her country, which has been thrown in the gutter by some Americans for not supporting the war. Her husband, a weapons officer, is aboard the Constellation in the Persian Gulf. Bustling through the warehouse, she shows me how overstuffed it is with household goods. “There’s too much,” she says. And then an idea pops out: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find someone in San Diego who could ship the overflow to Iraq?” I stop, a bit incredulous. “To Iraq? Now?” “Yes, right now. Ship this stuff to the people in Basra. To show them that this is not just about war. It’s about helping people in need.” There it is — another irony. This war is not just about war. It is about fellowship, about a parallel world where civilians help civilians. Such is our heightened capacity to understand ourselves, despite being chastened or wrenched by fear during conflict.
Before us, eight vehicles sag from their loads; in big white letters, one trunk reads, “This Van Made Possible By Prayer.” The assembly of ten Navy volunteers (one father brought his son) and three Ministries’ coordinators (Bradley, Debe Finch, and the interim director, Sandy Bowen) pause to survey what we’ll be handing out. Squash, cauliflower, and lettuce, all organic; veggie dogs and veggie ground round (the advice about vegetarian meat is to tell the wives to cut it up and add it to pork ’n’ beans or just cover it with ketchup so the kids won’t know the difference); oranges and grapefruit (of the perishables, it is obvious the group is getting items that didn’t sell); Lemon Cake Mix and many plastic-wrapped flats of Gerber’s; two boxes from Feed the Children, a Christian food ministry in Oklahoma: one of toiletries, the other of brand-name foods, a bag of Froot Loops on top. (An accident on the interstate may have held up the bread truck from Solana Beach; it never shows.) The day outside is getting as hot as it is inside the warehouse; the cars, someone says, now look like “lowriders”; a loud fighter jet is ascending no more than a quarter-mile above us.
Sandy Bowen, the indefatigable leader who moves with the stiffness of one who lifts food boxes every day, announces that we are finished. “We need to pray.” She gathers us into a circle, has us hold hands, then asks “Our Father” for His blessings — on the volunteers, on the delivery drivers, on the families who will receive the food, on their husbands in combat. “Thank you, Father, for opening up the heavens. And Father, please bless the reporter who has helped us load these vehicles today to write a story that shows the integrity of our work and the needs of the families so that we can be fairly seen.” I find myself not so much praying as feeling blown away by Bowen’s statement: How indeed can military families, whose husbands are fighting in Iraq and whose food needs are being filled, in part, by “ministering” Christians — and not by the government — be fairly seen?
When our laden vehicles arrive at a parking lot next to the Cabrillo Heights Community Center in Serra Mesa, there’s already a line of 30 young women and children, some in strollers, a few running amuck. The line will grow twice as long during the hot afternoon, snake down the block to the Navy Exchange. For 50 years Cabrillo has been an off-base military housing complex for active-duty Navy personnel. Its 812 units are, section by section, being razed and rebuilt. While some units have already been torn down (residents have been moved to new units at the Village at NTC), hundreds of apartments are still occupied. The two-story blue-trim apartment dwellings are not unlike college dormitories where no-frills, close-quarters, keep-your-television-down is the rule of thumb.
In sunglasses and shorts, several women, three young and one older, talk easily with me. Their children pull on their hands or wander a few feet away, then spring back and clutch Mom’s leg. The younger women say their pantries are not low. Anyone in dire need? “Nah, it’s just me and my son,” says one. “And he’s only two — he doesn’t eat that much.” Brooke, the most talkative of the three young women, says, “It’s nice just knowing that if things get tight at the end of the month, this is available.” (All the wives request I not use their last names since, during deployment and war, the majority are alone.)
The older woman, Darlene, insists that “some of these wives are in dire need of food because” a large chunk of their income goes for a “car payment.” Darlene and 12-year-old daughter Bridget, who also stops to talk, says that they first heard of the Ministries when they were renting an apartment. They drove to Cabrillo for the monthly food giveaways, where, she notes, there has always been a long line waiting for food. “It was a godsend,” Darlene says. “Because I wasn’t working —” and Bridget chimes in, “Because me and my brother have been getting sick a lot and because Dad’s been away.” Off base, rents are almost prohibitive, Darlene says. “The E-3s and below” — ranks for enlisted men and women begin at E-1 and go up to E-9, reflecting higher salaries for more time served — are “finding it very difficult to live here in San Diego.”
I ask about the housing allowance. “For E-4 and below,” says Brooke, “they’re expecting us to find affordable housing for a family of three on $1200 a month. It’s not possible.” While Brooke’s bleak assessment may not be true for all San Diego military families, it is undeniable that San Diego’s rents are highly inflated: thus, subsidized housing for soldiers is a boon. According to Gene Caldwell, a spokesman for the Navy’s Southwest Region, the Navy pays the rent for its families. Lincoln Properties, the Navy’s management partner, maintains San Diego’s 23 military housing communities. Lincoln pays for utilities, though telephone and cable TV are not included. Some 2000 people are on waiting lists for military housing in San Diego; the average wait is 12 to 15 months.
About deployments, Brooke speaks up again. “Mine’s on the Lincoln, hers is on the Constellation, and hers is in the Marines, on the ground, based in Kuwait.” Darlene, originally from Australia, says that her husband is a petty officer, second class, serving on the cruiser the USS Princeton. With 19 years in — and counting the months until retirement — her husband is an E-5. Prior to the war with Iraq, Darlene’s husband had been on board ships stationed near Iran, Somalia, Kenya, and Afghanistan.
Bridget says she communicates with her father by e-mail, phone, and letter. What do you say when you write? “I tell him the good things, not the bad things. To keep him confident. Some of the good things are, I’ve been chosen for a scholarship. When I get awards, I scan them and send them to him.” Her voice is buoyant and proud; clearly she misses her father. During her life, Bridget says, the pattern is, he’s “home one month and gone the next.”
I wonder if the government has a responsibility, whether in peacetime or wartime, to pay newly enlisted men more. Bridget says “yes” immediately. “It would help us a lot.” Darlene counters with “Bridget, hush. The reason the government should not pay for this stuff” — pointing at the large stacks rowed in front of us — “is that it’s donated. Military families can take budgeting classes. If they listen to the veterans, they can find out how to get things free or how to conserve on groceries or bills. A lot of the young people don’t understand the concept of smart shopping and smart cooking. You can cook ground beef a dozen ways —” and Bridget chimes in again, “A dozen ways, because I’m learning from her, and she knows, like, over a hundred ways.”
Volunteers by now have made a wall of boxes, six feet high and six feet deep. Along it, the food predominates; but there are also linens, toys, a dozen strollers, dishes, pots, and pans. In the middle of the parking lot, between the food and the line of women waiting, are five pastel-colored plastic bags. I open one, which emanates that powdery baby smell. Inside the bag are kitchen towels, an afghan, and quilts, made by the Sew-Sew group, a Presbyterian women’s circle. In the bag they always include an old-fashioned handmade ball consisting of puffed-up quilts, spongy soft, as light as a jewel case.
Before the food-getting begins, Sandy Bowen guides more prayer circles, first with the volunteers and then with the wives. She thanks the Lord that “these folks are going to be majorly, majorly blessed today.” She clears her throat and says to the wives, “I hope you pass the word in your community about all these blessings. When you go back today, knock on your neighbor’s door and tell them. All those people who have sent all this stuff are doing it because we so appreciate what you’re doing for our country. We just want to bless the socks off of you. Your lives are not easy right now. A lot of people are not willing to do what you and your spouses are willing to do.” She reminds them to take “all that you can use.” And, finally, “O Lord, we ask that You would guard those ships that are out at sea and those Marines and soldiers, the Air Force people and the helicopter pilots, all of them putting their lives on the line for our safety and for the freedom of the Iraqi people. We pray, Lord, that You would come alive in the hearts and the minds of all those people out there, that they wouldn’t be afraid.”
Bowen doesn’t skip a beat. “Is there anybody here who’s eight months pregnant?” A woman with two-year-old twin daughters and a three-year-old daughter — each one’s frizzy hair bulbed in a tight knob on her head — raises a cautious hand. “What are you going to have?” “A boy.” Bowen hands her the pastel yellow bag, “a present from our ministry.” The other women applaud, and the sun-warmed line of half-whole families starts to move with measured glee.
To find out why military families need monthly food donations, I spend a morning with four Navy wives — this, during the war — at a Presbyterian church in Chula Vista. They are making “Blue Star Service Banners,” a red border around a blue star against a white background. The banner, popular during World War II, is displayed in the wife’s window to let the world know her husband is on active duty. Though we begin with general, safer questions, eventually I ask them about the pay and what I’d witnessed at Cabrillo, a real need (dire or not) for food at month’s end.
Should the government increase their husbands’ pay? Angela, the oldest and savviest of the four women gathered around a large table, bristles: “Now there’s a loaded question.” Sensitive to its implications, the wives sidestep the query; they focus, instead, on what is already being given: medical benefits; tuition help at local colleges; low-interest loans; a housing allowance for rent and utilities; lower prices at the commissaries and exchanges (20 cents less for gas on base); and a sizable pension, upon retirement, when many soldiers, still young, can embark on a second career.
Again and again, they want to talk about the lack of planning in the military, not the lack of money. Sudden deployments, when the women become single parents, are their chief complaint. Orders always change. “In the military you learn to have plans A, B, C, and D,” Bonnie, the youngest, says. Adaptation is expected, but nobody likes it. Angela, whose spouse is on a submarine, says, “My husband always says, ‘Everything’s written in Jell-O.’ Warm Jell-O, to be kind.” The wives want things to be “as normal as possible for our children — whatever normal is.” The war has made Daddy’s presence with the kids a nonevent. “This year, out of 12 months,” Bonnie laments, “we’ll see him one month.” When he’s home, the kids get “quality time with Dad,” Angela says. “It’s banking memories.”
Another difficult question for young Navy mothers is whether to work. They often qualify only for temporary employment. Dawn, cradling an eight-week-old baby, has had possible employers tell her that investing in military wives is bad business. “ ‘You’ll be gone in a year and a half, so we don’t want to put in the time to train you,’ they’ll say.” A string of temp jobs never looks good on a résumé. That’s why, says Angela, “We volunteer more than anything else.” They make do on their husbands’ salaries and help out other women whose spouses are E-1s and E-2s. Dawn said that “the military member gets their degree first, so they get a higher rank and more money. Then the wife gets her degree.” Darlene (who is not the Australian Darlene I met at Cabrillo) also volunteers with the Ministries. She says that “when Daddy’s gone, you have to be there” for the kids. Her husband does his best to help raise their daughter via e-mail. He reminds the daughter that “ ‘Daddy’s on the ship, putting the bad guys in jail.’ When my daughter is asked by others at the end of school, ‘How come your daddy doesn’t pick you up?’ she says, ‘My daddy’s on the ship putting the bad guys in jail.’ ”
Especially during deployments, the wives tell me, they want to maintain a stable home so that, as Bonnie puts it, “my husband can visualize the house and the children. My husband even told me he feels better knowing that we’re here and not sharing a room at Grandma’s house. He knows we’re prepared if anything happens. He can visualize that while he’s standing watch for 12 hours, looking at the ocean. He knows we’re at home and safe, not traveling.” Angela agrees. “Staying where your husband is stationed is always the best thing for the family: you want to make things as constant and sane as possible for the children.”
The reason families must rely on charity as well as cultivate responsibility personally and in groups is simple. The basic pay for an E-1 with less than four months’ service is $1064 per month. E-1s receive a raise, after four months, of $86 a month. E-2s with under two years served get $1290; E-3s, $1357; E-4s, $1503; and so on, up to E-7s, who pocket $2068 per month. (E-8s and E-9s must have served eight and ten years, respectively, to reach that rank.) The more years in and the higher the rank, the more one makes. Roughly 50 percent of the armed forces are E-4 and below (though many have been in longer than two years). According to Newsweek, the “base pay for Army private with one year’s service” is $15,480 — not much money even with the housing allowance added on.
During the Clinton administration, many military families qualified for food stamps. But under George W. Bush, the soldiers’ salaries are now just over the maximum to qualify, typically by $5. One local food-stamp director told me that yearly military pay increases have remained steadily and fractionally above the increases in food-stamp qualifications. Even $10 less in salary would mean $100 more in food stamps. Families wonder why they don’t qualify: in calculating eligibility, the government includes the housing allowance as part of the salary. One military spouse put it succinctly: You have to “be really poor” to get food stamps.
The WIC program — federal food aid for women, infants, and children — is available to women who are pregnant and to families with children under five. Cindy Rich, who directs the WIC program on military bases through the American Red Cross, says that the program is funded in San Diego County to serve 100,000 caseloads per month. The Red Cross caseload is about 37,000, of which 30 percent are military families. That is roughly 11,000 local military families who are receiving, every month, about $100 worth of milk, beans, cheese, peanut butter, eggs, infant formula, carrots, and tuna. Breast-feeding women are required to meet with “lactation educators” for advice on basic nutrition.
A portrait of an enlistee’s first few years might run like this. He’s 18 years old, and he’s enlisting because he’s not college-bound. (If he were not joining the military, he’d be working in the service sector, his pay, about the same as a soldier’s.) He’s joining because he wants to escape a poor family. He opts for the military because it will give him a roof, training, a job with pride, and order in his life. Once in, he is stationed far from home. He’s alone but with many young men just like him; the majority have few skills at budgeting a salary; the money seems like a lot at first, so buying on credit and making payments is the way to go. The soldier meets a woman and gets married. He has one, maybe two children right away, knowing that the service will provide him with medical care for years to come. One day, when he’s 21, he wakes up and asks, What happened? Looking at his unit, he notices that more than half of his fellow E-2s and E-3s are in the same boat he’s in, neither sinking nor sailing. He begins to realize that the armed forces is a place where, as one military watcher put it, “married soldiers are kept happy, despite their mistakes.” He is serving his country, but his country is also serving him — big time — with government or privately funded programs that, in sum, approach the spirit and the magnitude of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Helping administer one small corner of this society is Aline Bradley. Bradley used to be a social worker with the Navy’s Fleet and Family Support Center, a social service agency with offices at several naval bases. For six years she enjoyed the work and the good salary. But she felt called to do something “in the field.” Military Outreach Ministries, she says — we are driving from Chula Vista to National City for a home visit — “gives me the opportunity to get really close to the families. I didn’t do home visits [with the Navy]. It was mostly [giving out] information and referrals for loans” from a desk. Then, “Nobody addressed what the families should be doing with the money they receive,” whether loan or salary; now she can assess each situation on the spot. She has learned that the neediest are not the ones who run out of food every month. The neediest are the ones who haven’t faced up to the downward spiral of debt and who are held aloft on the illusion that the military will save them.
A lack of education is what Bradley sees all too frequently when she visits families. Indeed, she says, they are beleaguered not by what they don’t have but by what they’ve bought or are hoping to buy! “They want too much too soon.” Why is complicated. Families believe that the military is a brotherhood that “takes care of its own” with all kinds of monetary benefits and social programs; they believe that by purchasing new items they will uphold whatever status they have achieved beyond the rank of E-1; they believe that hard work and promotions translate into a rosy future. The sum of belief and an orientation toward the future spells debt. Typically, military families can’t say no to an SUV, a big-screen TV, a computer, a 500-watt home stereo system. At most military housing complexes, one sees the DirecTV dishes cornered on one of every three porch balconies, with packages for movie and sports channels costing a minimum of $86 per month. Families are also preyed upon by the unscrupulous, seduced into further acquisition to calm a peripatetic life. One wife mentions a door-to-door salesman who was trying to sell her a $200-per-month membership in a gourmet meat club. She told the guy, “I don’t have any money,” and he told her, “What do you mean? You’re in the military; you’re not broke.”
On home visits, Bradley typically carries in a flat of Gerber’s baby food and many questions. She says she sometimes has to bite her tongue and not say, do you really need that cable TV (which was on loud in every apartment I visited) when you can’t afford food for the baby? Bradley tells the wives that it’s their job to prioritize spending or get help in learning how. Some wives complain that it’s their husbands who want the new stuff; consequently, they may have to choose between buying diapers or paying off the Land Rover.
“It’s a vicious circle,” Bradley remarks. She tells me of one teenage girl, born outside the United States, who married a U.S. soldier. “He brought her over here — she was pregnant — left her in an empty apartment, then went off on deployment. We came over with a couch, a table, a bed, a bassinet. We basically furnished the whole place. He came back from deployment and his wife called me, ‘Oh, honey, you can pick up all the furniture. My husband bought us everything.’ The kid [the husband] comes back after six months and says, ‘You know what? I don’t want anyone’s borrowed furniture. I spent six months on a steel ship.’ He went to Ikea, and the house was furnished — big-screen TV and digital cable, all that stuff. I was disappointed because we talked to the wife all along: ‘You need to be really careful because this is now the beginning of your career. If you don’t pay attention, you’re going to encounter difficulties with bills.’ We talked to the husband — and at least he didn’t buy a car.”
Bradley says that we should not blame them, especially now, when they’re under so much stress. “But,” she continues, what can ruin it “is the nice car. We’ve got these kids driving $30, $40,000 cars. They figure, ‘You know what? I don’t have a nice house. I have a crappy job right now. At least I’m going to look good when I drive.’ ” She laughs. “When they go to the Mile of Cars, the salesmen say, ‘No credit, no problem.’ The interest rate is ridiculous.” Once a month Bradley holds a sort of life-skills workshop for soldiers and their spouses and reminds them of the car dealer’s tactics. “They will ask, ‘How much do you want to pay?’ The soldier says, ‘Two hundred dollars a month.’ ‘No problem.’ ‘What’s the interest rate?’ ‘Don’t worry about that.’ ” When one sailor asked Bradley and a financial advisor to review the contract he had signed, they determined that his used $25,000 SUV would end up costing $55,000 over ten years. She says it’s depressing to see “young families going into bankruptcy for a $15,000 debt.”
Wives have a set of problems all their own. “The husband is away. Maybe he is responsible and says, ‘Pay attention to the bills. Don’t spend too much money.’ And the wife, after two months, says, ‘You know what? Forget this. My husband is away. I’m miserable. I’ve got all these things breaking down on me. I don’t have transportation. Forget this.’ And she goes and gets a big line of credit and spends, spends, spends. The guy comes back, and he’s happy because he thinks the wife has saved money, receiving extra money during a deployment. But there’s no money in the bank. The wife has spent it all. The guy is frustrated. They start arguing, start blaming each other. The wife says, ‘It’s your fault. You’re away so often.’ It’s a vicious circle.”
As to raising military pay, Bradley agrees with the Navy wives I spoke with but for different reasons. “Sure, they deserve more money,” she says, “but the more they make the more they’re going to spend. Unfortunately, giving them extra money is not going to change much; they’re going to get a bigger car or another car, when what they need to learn is budget management.” Put any “extra money” into child care, she says. (Every military spouse I interviewed wished the military helped with day care.) This would free the wives to work or to study. On the other hand, Bradley says, there’s no reason why a policeman, without a college degree, can “start out at $45,000 a year, while a soldier fighting in Iraq right now is taking home $18,000. That’s not appropriate.”
Is there any shame associated with wives’ accepting “charity”? Bradley says that her organization is sensitive to this question: the families are never “treated like beggars,” nor are they “in desperate need.” It’s a good thing, she says, that wives speak up when they run out of food. “To me, admitting that you need help and taking the steps to take care of it — that’s being responsible. The guys, on the other hand, are afraid to admit it,” and worse, “afraid someone will tell their command. They know they spend money frivolously, but they don’t want anyone to know.”
As a military wife, Bradley herself has been down and out. Several years ago, with her husband deployed, she had a two-year-old girl and a six-month-old infant, whom she was weaning off breast milk. She had $10 in the bank when she ran out of formula. We had “bills,” she says, “a Ford Escort — nothing like an SUV — but lots of bills.” Monthly phone charges with a sailor at sea who has no e-mail can run to hundreds of dollars. She called the Ministries and they delivered a box of formula. Better off later on, Bradley returned the favor by giving two boxes of formula to the Ministries. She never forgot their generosity.
Before we complete the afternoon bread ministry — in which we stop at the USO building at Lindbergh Field; load up Costco-donated flats of chocolate-chip muffins, danishes, and cheesecakes; deliver the goods to six Navy wives at Terrace View Villas in Chula Vista, two of whom transfer the goodies into their cars for friends who are working — we visit a tired-looking apartment complex on Eta Avenue in National City where Tenisha, a Navy wife, is in a mess of trouble.
Tenisha is pretty and young, with light brown braids. It’s been a year since she’s seen her husband: “When he left I was two months pregnant,” she tells us in a quiet voice. She’s rocking her five-month-old in a bassinet on the table; her three-year-old is at child care. We have just missed the man from San Diego Gas and Electric. He came to shut off her power, but she paid the bill with the last of her money. She’s way behind on her bills because she and her husband, who’s stationed in Naples, Italy, are separated, and he won’t send her any support for their two children. She’s been on the phone with a district attorney, trying to find out how to serve him divorce papers. “I can’t do anything because we’re at war. Everything’s frozen.” Even worse, when Tenisha applies for aid, like Head Start or welfare, her husband’s $3000-per-month salary is added to her smaller salary, and the request is denied. She’s desperate: she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay this month’s rent of $759.
Bradley tells Tenisha to call the base commander immediately and say she is surviving on donations from Military Outreach Ministries, which is giving her “extra food, extra diapers, extra formula, because you have no money.” We carry in a bag of diapers, two Feed the Children boxes of food and personal items, and two flats of Gerber’s. Bradley will deliver formula tomorrow. In the parking lot, Bradley tells me about the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940 that forbids lawsuits against soldiers at a time of war since they are unable to return to the United States to defend themselves. Bradley says she’ll keep tabs on Tenisha. Her saving grace: “at least she has friends.”
Each apartment I enter divulges the family’s unseen other half — the absent male. Walls are festooned with photos of husband/daddy/soldier in uniform — the young, slightly bewildered face — or the Kmart picture of the family: parents and child in soft focus, a smiling trinity. One photo (used as a screen saver) was taken on board ship: a young man’s face unencumbered by home, it seems, with that voyaging look of the equator-crossing sailor. Often the wives tell me that their husbands, whether “green-card recruits” or “lifers,” love serving in the armed forces, love defending their country. The point reminds me that what Americans honor and remember with rallies, parades, and other “welcome home” events, is the soldier’s sacrifice, seldom that of the spouse. As one wife said, mixing her pronouns for emphasis, “When everyone is raised and Daddy’s retired, then Mommy’ll go and do what I want to do.” Kowtowing to a husband? What strikes me is that the burden of security, of deployment, of war that we dump on the soldiers, the soldiers — in turn and without malice — dump on the families they have to leave behind.
At the Camp Elliott warehouse, back in late March, I had helped Sandy Bowen place stickers inside the stiff red covers of New International Version Bibles. The stickers included the Ministries’ phone number at the bottom of a list of “Steps to Assurance of Salvation.” The Bibles were then offered as part of the day’s giveaway. And in MOM’s monthly newsletter, a blocked-out section labeled B-I-B-L-E had this reminder: “We would like every family who wants a complete Bible to have one. We know that a package of diapers, a can of food, or a roll of toilet paper will be gone in a day or so. But the food that is in this important book will feed your spiritual needs, and that lasts for eternity.”
Despite thinking a great deal about how to see food, faith, and the military fairly, I hadn’t as yet posed to Bowen or anyone else my questions about faith: I thought food was in a category of its own, above the needs of the spirit. In other words, satiate the belly before ministering to the soul. But I wanted to find an answer to a particular concern: Does the Ministries’ giving, whether Bibles or food, require a quid pro quo? I’d learned there’s a kind of faith-based verity about the military home front during war that says that the families have nothing but belief (or a yearning for belief) to guide them and their absent husbands. Stated bluntly, does a Christian food ministry expect to convert those it serves?
Debe Finch, another of the Ministries’ team leaders, is a former case worker for a domestic violence program at Children’s Hospital, the mother of college-age children, a foster parent of seven years, and a deacon with a record of service in the Presbyterian church. In a phone interview in April, Finch tells me that her background resonated with the Ministries’ board of directors when she was hired last summer, her foster-parent experience in particular. Helping Navy men and women has lifted Finch’s spirit. “They are such hard workers. They don’t make a lot of money, but they take care of their families.”
Finch feels “closer to God” by working in the Ministries. She neither hides her “calling,” nor is she proactive about “converting” anyone. Military families know that the Ministries is a Christian group. As for the Bibles — 99 percent of the spouses take them, she says, when they’re offered. Craft classes and home visits often are opportunities for the spouses to discuss faith. But Finch has heard at least one woman counter her: “Don’t even try and convert me.” Finch says the woman, misinformed about the Ministries’ outreach, believed that you had “to be a Christian to receive help or go to classes.” Not true. But Finch did say that with Bible giveaways and craft classes held in churches, spiritual discussion is encouraged, even sought by some team leaders. She says that the women bring up the subject of spirituality more than she does. “I remember one girl who knew a lot about Christianity had said that it’s not important to go to church. I thought that at one time too, but it is [good to go]. So you just try, in a nice way, to say, ‘I thought that too, but I know now that it is important because you go there to worship.’ ”
I ask Finch about interim director Sandy Bowen, who in April was not chosen as the full-time director. Finch says that Bowen used to have the team leaders stay home to read and pray one day as part of their workweek. “It’s really great,” she recalls, “because there’s so many people to pray for who are looking for a job or who need child care and can’t find it. Sandy really fed us. Even when we would have meetings, we were reading from a book and praying.” Finch is shocked that Bowen was not kept on. It should have been “automatic,” she says. The board “prayed” for guidance about who should get the job, and, instead, “They felt the new director could handle all the areas.”
Aline Bradley, who, like Finch, is new to MOM, says that their group “believes in God and in Jesus Christ” with the idea that “God doesn’t give a silver spoon to everyone. He’s giving us tools to bless us with the ability to make the most of our lives. The higher purpose here is to empower and help each other, being caring of the needs of our neighbors no matter if they are our friends or our enemies.” Bradley calls herself a “marginal child” in the group. “I didn’t come from a Christian background. I was hired because of my military experience. I feel that I have a calling that is letting me serve people with a higher purpose.” She says prayer circles and Christian outreach are still new for her. Right now, “I am building my faith.”
Bradley regards her military background as crucial to the Christian program. “The women who have this strong Christian background don’t necessarily appreciate where these families are coming from. A lot of [military spouses] are from broken homes, a background where the parents went to church but didn’t follow through with it. At times you have to appreciate what it means to be starting out in a family that doesn’t have faith. The fact is, if it wasn’t for the Presbyterian church, there wouldn’t be a program like this. We are not here to build up membership in the church; just like [Father Joe at] St. Vincent de Paul is helping the homeless, he’s not selling Catholicism to them. Ultimately the Christian community in America has always been proactive in helping others. It’s the basis of the Ten Commandments.”
Publicity about military families and their food needs during the Iraq War was phenomenal. In late April, Leisure World, an organization that owns convalescent homes, along with a few other businesses, donated enough pallets of food to nearly fill the warehouse at Camp Elliott. For Debe Finch, such bounty is the result of prayer. “This happens over and over. I’ll get a call and someone will say they want to donate a washer and dryer. And I’ll say, ‘We really don’t take them, but I’ll keep your number.’ Then a call or two later, someone says, ‘I really need a washer and dryer.’ A couple of months ago we didn’t have any food,” Finch continued. “The warehouse was bare.” Now that it was packed to the rafters, she said, “I guess we prayed too much.”
Finally I realize the irony of faith: Only believers can gauge its consequences.