Chattanooga pastor stretches his wings in Afghanistan

Chattanooga pastor stretches his wings in Afghanistan

March 20th, 2011 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Chaplain John Richards baptizes a fellow officer in a small pool at a compound in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo Courtesy of John Richards

Chaplain John Richards baptizes a fellow officer in...

With weekly choir practice, Bible study and worship services, John Richards could almost believe he hadn't left Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church.

But rockets and camouflage betrayed his location.

Richards, assistant pastor of Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church, has just returned from a 10-month mission in Kabul, Afghanistan, as an Army Reserve chaplain with the 94th Chaplain Detachment in support of the 490th Chemical Battalion of Anniston, Ala. The assignment was his first overseas since he served in Desert Storm in 1991.

"The chaplaincy [is] more involved in the lives of soldiers" than it was 20 years ago, Richards, 46, said. "They're offering more programs. They're plugged in more with all of the service members."

The California native said part of his assignment was similar to his job at Lookout Valley Presbyterian. In Afghanistan, he said, he helped soldiers plug into worship services. There was an active gospel choir "that rocked" and a praise band that was "really big" among its followers, he said. Bible studies were well-attended he said.

The soldiers participated and the choirs rehearsed, Richards said, in spite of a difficult workload.

"They're working such long hours," he said. "Logistically, everything's difficult in Afghanistan. Despite that ... they were that dedicated. They were willing to set aside time in their busy schedule."

Richards said he also led training on suicide awareness and assisted with humanitarian missions to hospitals and schools.

A humanitarian mission, such as delivering school supplies, is dear to his heart, he said, because of the interaction with the Afghan people.

"The kids absolutely loved it when they got paper, pens - that kind of thing," Richards said. "The church back home, family and friends would send [supplies] we could deliver. Kids in our country don't get excited about school supplies. Getting paper is a luxury over there. There are so (few) resources."

Grady Davidson, pastor of Lookout Valley Presbyterian, said church members saw the chaplain's service as an extension ministry of the congregation.

"He's one of us," he said, "and we were there through him."

Richards said his base's location was about 20 miles from the active Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but he was rarely in danger. During his stay, he said, only two rockets strayed over the base.

Richards first came to Chattanooga to attend Tennessee Temple University when he was discharged from the Army at Fort Knox, Ky. He left after a year, attended Chattanooga State Community College and received his associate's degree. He later finished his bachelor's degree through the Quest program at Covenant College.

During Desert Storm, he served with the Army Signal Corps. As a chaplain's assistant, his first assignment was in 2003 at Fort Campbell, Ky., for slightly less than a year. In 2006, he was posted to Fort Gordon, Ga., for a bit more than a year as an advance individual training instructor with the Signal Corps.

Between then and 2010, Richards completed the educational requirements to be a chaplain and was ordained by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Today, having been in the Army Reserve or National Guard for 24 years, he serves under the 209th Regional Support Group in Belton, Mo. He said he'll likely have at least a year off before another deployment.

"It might be three or five years," he said, "or, maybe, not anytime in the near future."