Going to Church in Iraq

Eric Russell, who was a frequent commenter to BCC before his deployment, wrote the following description of what it is like to go to Church in Iraq. I’m sharing his account here with his permission. –Kevin Barney

The Al Asad Group

The base has a pretty nice chapel building with nice pews, stained glass windows and everything. But we don’t meet there. Jews and Mormons meet in the chapel annex building in the back.

iraq-chapel

Church at Al Asad works exactly the way church is supposed to work: two optional one-hour meetings. The first is at 1:00 and the next is at 8:00 in the evening. We generally get about 20 people for the afternoon session and 10-15 for the evening one, with very little overlap. Each meeting is structured like a sacrament meeting all the way up until after sacrament, when we turn to lessons instead of talks. During one of the sessions we do the SS lesson and during the other we do the Priesthood/RS lesson. Sometimes we’ll just watch General Conference talks.

We’re a Group – the smaller form of a Branch – of the Manama Bahrain Stake. We have a Stake Representative for Anbar Province at another base and a Senior Stake Representative in Baghdad. All of the group leadership was leaving as I arrived and a new Group Leader was called. I was called as an Assistant Group Leader. We’re trying to get a second called right now. We have a few people called as instructors, but we’re trying to get a total of six so that everyone just teaches one session once a month. The problem is that there’s so much movement, it’s hard to find people who aren’t leaving in a couple of months. I suddenly feel sorry for the bishoprics of all my single’s wards.

A few odds and ends about the group:

- Two meetings can mess with our institutionalized language. During a closing prayer at the afternoon session someone said, “and please bless that those who could not make it this week will be able to attend next week . . . or this evening.”

- We wear uniforms to church, as we do everywhere, but we don’t really recognize rank, which is a little jarring. I still remember walking into church for the first time and a Lieutenant Colonel comes up and shakes my hand and says, “Hi, I’m Brother B–.”

- We also bring weapons to church, as we do everywhere. There’s a rifle rack on the wall for people who have rifles, but those of us with pistols just keep them on us. It was a little strange at first blessing the sacrament while armed.

- The Jews meet in a room right next to us. They have a sign by their door that says, “Congregation Brothers of Israel.” I am tempted, almost above that which I can bear, to put a sign by our door that says, “Congregation Elders of Israel.”

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Comments

  1. esodhiambo says:

    Fascinating. I want to know the percentage of female members attending and what about Iraqi Mormons–do they have anywhere to meet? There must be a few….

  2. Mark Brown says:

    two optional one-hour meetings.

    This constitutes incontrovertible proof that the church is truer in Iraq than in the U.S.

    Thanks for your service Eric.

  3. Very interesting and cool post. Amazing that despite the cicrumstances in Iraq that there is still a proper org. that oversees this small group. (Ie. Part of Manama Bahrain Branch) Thanks a lot!
    DH
    http://www.fromthedust.org

  4. Great stuff Eric. And yes, thank you for your service.

    Our bishop is in the FBI so he always has his gun on him, though few people know it.

  5. What a great post. I don’t think there is any detail about Mormon activity in Iran that could possibly be so trivial that we wouldn’t find it fascinating. Ask Eric to share anything more that comes to mind.

  6. This really is fascinating, Eric. Administering the sacrament while armed . . . I’d never even thought of that.

    Oh, and I love the alternate sign idea.

  7. I just read this out loud to my husband. I really enjoyed it. Visiting my husbands “home” ward in Poland was an interesting experience when I went, and I enjoy hearing about the experience in other countries as well.

  8. ESO, we have three women right now. They don’t break off for RS or anything; everything’s together. I’m sure there are Iraqi Mormons somewhere in the country, but not on this base.

    Ardis, I’m happy to share anything, but there’s honestly not much that’s all that interesting. One other thing I think is kind of funny is that none of the civilians have church clothes with them – including the group leader, who happens to be a civilian. So he’ll be up there conducting the meeting, trying to be all reverent and formal, and he’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

  9. Most Iraqi Mormons are refugees in Jordan or scattered elsewhere around the world.

  10. “…will be able to attend next week . . . or this evening.”

    lolz. This is very and truly awesome, Eric. Thanks for your service. Take care of yourself, ok.

  11. So what does the group do officially other than administer the Sacrament and teach lessons? HT/VT perhaps? but I’m guessing even that is optional in your situation.

  12. I loved our small, short group meetings when we were in the UAE (same stake). We were in a smaller city, though. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have full meeting schedules. I remember at Stake Conference they would record the sessions so that LDS groups in Iraq could watch them later. I miss being there so much!

  13. Church in Iraq was interesting at best. Our Sunday School lessons would often consist of conference talks, which we would watch on someones laptop. It was difficult to have a proper Sunday School, because not everyone could show up on time due to missions ect… Church services only lasted an hour. To increase our time with one another, we would also go to lunch with each other after the services in an effort of fellowshipping. I will never forget running for a duck-and-over bunker in Baghdad, with the whole branch, during the meeting and all of us laughing about it after wards. I enjoyed meeting with both the sisters and brothers in Diyala and looked forward to the services each week. It was a great respite from the typical military atmosphere of tobacco and constant swearing in most everything they do and say. The camaraderie between members lasted throughout the week, and we would seek each other out during the week for support and friendship.

  14. I hope we’ll hear more from Eric if possible, this is so fascinating. Thanks for all you do for church and country.

  15. Thanks for this, Eric. Keep safe!

  16. I was a contractor in the Green Zone and Camp Victory from 2005-2006, and I loved Church there. My group in the Green Zone had military, State Department, DoD civilians and contractors- a mix of men and women from various walks of life. At Victory, it was almost all male soldiers, a smaller group.
    The abbreviated meeting schedule was wonderful, and should serve as a model for the rest of the Church.

  17. Great post. Thanks, Kevin.

  18. Eric, there are ordinary details of the conditions under which you meet that you take for granted but that could be unfamiliar and interesting to people like me. For instance, do you have a set of the familiar sacrament trays and little plastic/paper cups, or do you make do with something else? If you have them, is that because the church provides some kind of kit to equip groups like yours? I see a piano — is it easy to find someone to play it? Anybody wishing they hadn’t talked Mom out of making them practice? Do you have a feeling for whether Latter-day Saints in are more likely or less likely to be active in the military in Iraq than they are at home?

    More posts, please. I think you’ll be surprised by how popular they are. Great job.

  19. Thanks Eric, and I echo Ardis comment. This is wonderful.

  20. This stuff is all very interesting to me. I was unexpectedly touched by the bit about not recognizing rank at church.
    Thanks for your service, Eric.

  21. John Mansfield says:

    Does the army have any mixed feelings about small fraternities, religious or otherwise, that have a special bond to one another that transcends the military organization?

  22. I agree with #18! More ideas: I would be interested in how the church fits into your daily non-Sunday routine as well. Home teaching? Do you say hi to each other in the cafeteria, etc? If so, is the rank thing even more awkward in those settings? Is it hard for the teachers to find time to themselves when they can be in a spiritual mood during the week to prepare a lesson?

    Also other details about the group administration. How much interaction between your unit and the leadership over you? Do you have leadership meetings (equivalent of ward council/PEC)?

  23. In Diyala, they had “group leaders” which were set apart to be group leaders before going to Iraq. The group leader was similar to a Bishop or Branch President. If one group leader was leaving, he would ask if there were other group leaders from the new soldiers that had moved in to take he older soldiers place. There were always a couple, so through the power of prayer, the new group leader would be selected to continue running the services. In Iraq, there is an actual Stake leadership set up. I believe it is the Arab Peninsula Stake (I may be wrong). Anyways, they are the ones that we would request supplies from. We had the same sacrament trays and water cups as you typically find in any LDS church. We received Books of Mormons, the little pocket size to hand out. We had Sunday School books, Hymn books and would receive CDs of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. If there were soldiers that received the Ensign, they would usually circulate those around to those who didn’t. Religion in the military is something that is highly promoted, so everywhere you go there is a chapel of some sort. There is also a lot of material that is available on most religions. When it comes to music during the services, if there was someone that played the piano, there was always a piano or electric keyboard available. Where we shared the Chapel with other religions, we would keep everything in separate footlockers. The most I ever counted in attendance in Diyala were 20 people, so one tray of water and bread sufficed. Before the services someone would go through the cafeteria and pick up a couple of pieces of bread. Those in attendance were contractors, State Department and military. Several times there were also investigators that would be in attendance, investigating the church. It was also amazing to me that in such a climate and in a war zone, so many people prayed at the cafeteria before eating their meals. When you are in such peril, most people pray, so it was often pretty easy to discuss religion and to invite others to church. The Church Leaders advised us that we were not to be proselyting in Iraq. That we were there for a specific purpose but now was not the time to convert all the Iraqis. However, there were so many opportunities to discuss our beliefs with soldiers, interpreters or contractors. All without proselyting specifically to the Iraqis.

  24. Responding to everyone –

    Like Mack mentions, there’s a program where you are set apart as a Group Leader beforehand in your home ward and then it only takes effect if needed. I have discovered, however, that this only applies where the church is not established. Because there is an actual stake that covers Iraq, Group Leaders can be called regardless of whether they were set apart as such beforehand. Also, our stake must have recently merged or renamed, because we used to be part of the Arab Peninsula Stake, but we’ve been told we’re now in the Manama Bahrain Stake; I’m not sure what accounts for the change.

    I think the Stake is supposed to provide us with stuff, but we were having difficulty with that, so recently I just went ahead and purchased ten additional hymnals from the church website because we were short.

    We don’t do home teaching. And we’re not going to try unless the Stake Representative starts pressuring us to. We had heard from the guys before us that they had tried some time ago, but it was kind of silly. Everyone would just stay after church and “home teach” each other just to check the box. They also did a weekly FHE, but we tried that and no one ever came, so that’s on hold for the moment. We report our monthly Sacrament meeting totals up the Stake Representative, but other than that we’re pretty independent of oversight.

    No one knows how to play piano, so we use the CD accompaniment with speakers. One time I was conducting the music and I set the hymn to the wrong number and somehow I was the last one to figure out it was the wrong hymn. Everyone had just stopped singing and there I was still flailing my arm around. Kind of embarrassing.

    I’ve eaten with people in the chow hall, and rank isn’t really an issue there, but I did ask the civilian group leader if he would do the calling and setting apart for a Major we called to be an instructor, given that he outranked than me. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been an issue, but it’s just kind of weird. He and I meet once a week to discuss callings, business, etc.

    Being deployed seems to affect people differently. I know that a number of our active members were less active or altogether inactive back at home. At the same time, I also know a number of active members from my home ward who are out here that never come at all. It very well could be work issues, so who knows.

    There is no ideological opposition to any kind of fraternities; the military tries hard to make religious services available. Also, strangely, back home I’ve noticed an unusually high frequency of Masonic symbols on cars on base and I’ve never heard anything frowning on it.

  25. Thanks, Eric.

  26. Great blog and a great testimony. Keep up the good work!

  27. Eric,

    So cool – thanks for the report. (Makes me a little “homesick” for the Branch we used to attend in the Gulf.)

    Maybe I missed it – do you meet on Sunday. or on Friday? (Since Friday is the Muslim “sabbath,” LDS units in the region typically meet on Fridays). In our Branch we would refer to our lesson time as “Sabbath School” rather than “Sunday School” for that very reason. And just to clarify, the name of the Stake was recently changed from “Arabian Peninsula” to “Manama Bahrain.”

  28. Thank you for being a warrior for our great country and blessings on you for being a warrior in the Lord’s kingdom. The need for strong, dedicated elders is becoming more and more apparent. Stand up for what you believe. We need you.

  29. I don’t have the words to express how thankful I am for all those who are in the military (which is sad, because I’m an writer, LOL). Both of my brothers are mechanics in the military: one on HumVees in the Army, and the other on F-16s in the Air Force. And my father, two uncles, and both grandfathers also served.

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