Tom and Cheri Austin were recently interviewed for Command about their experiences operating the Fellowship House, serving West Point cadets, and serving with them in the mission field since the summer of 2009.
Tell us a bit about your time serving at USMA OCF.
Tom Austin: It has been both rewarding and challenging. Half the time you don’t feel adequate enough to do it. This job is unique in that it’s a combination of doing campus ministry and being a hospitality house to cadets, their parents, relatives, and friends.
Cheri Austin: We had a motto when we came here that we would wear out, not rust out, in lives poured out for Christ as a drink offering, and trusting Him that He would let us know when it was time to leave.
Tell us a bit about Fellowship House.
Tom: There are lots of cadets, lots of activities—the house and barn are always in use. It was purchased during Mike and Peggy Tesdahl’s tenure. Barry and Barb Willey went to leaps and bounds to furnish it. Since we came onboard, the kitchen was renovated to support the hundreds of meals we provided. We repainted the house, which first involved difficult and special challenges of having to remove the lead-based paint. The driveway was repaved and the barn re-stained. And now the basement is no longer leaking.
Give us a few snapshots of your work at USMA OCF Fellowship House.
House and grounds are necessary, concurrent tasks—cutting the lawn, edging, laundry, fixing the things that always break in a sixty-year-old house. But those are secondary to ministry. It’s all about the relationships. For the recent USMA graduation, guests started arriving for what was seven solid days of hospitality and meals before the last ones left.
Why these mission trips?
It’s a blessing to do them. Cadets give up their spring break of vacation or relaxation to help others. They go with a noble idea, but the opportunities have them returning having been blessed by what they received verses what they gave.
Who all is involved in these mission trips?
We have those from various faith backgrounds, including Baptist and Catholic, with the group becoming a wide representation involving OCF, Youth With a Mission (YWAM), and The Navigators. We work with Shawn and Marie Hatch, OCFers who work with The Navigators, and they’re a real blessing. In addition to the spring mission trips, we partner with them for the fall retreat and the Army-Navy banquet.
Tell us a bit about your trips.
First of all, cadets are in charge of the trip, so leadership development opportunities applicable to their military lives are plentiful. Forty-one of us went this year to the Dominican Republic and we built two houses and also worked at an orphanage and a leper center. It’s hard work, but the cadets have a great attitude.
What were you hoping the cadets would learn?
A number of things, such as loving one another, acts of service, and presenting “your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). Also, to learn to work together as a team for a common goal, mature them in their faith, and provide a sense of biblical worldview—why we do the things we do.
How do these trips teach leadership and service to your cadets?
Leadership is servanthood. The best, true leaders are humble, have a servant’s heart, and think first of those they lead before they think of themselves. It’s all about caring for your soldiers, to think of others better than yourself. Like it says in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
How did the mission trips change them?
It had a huge impact on the kids by being convicted a little bit in seeing God’s world and to become less selfish. It was enjoyable to watch the cadets interact with others, to serve those who have nothing but share everything they have, such as bringing us sweet breads or coffee. As a result, often times cadets come back immediately wanting to become a world missionary, and we’ve had cadets who leave West Point temporarily or even permanently. I encourage them to stay in and serve in this mission field, and to make sure it’s God’s timing, not theirs.
What’s next for you?
We’re moving to South Carolina. We will use that eventually as a hub for travels as OCF associate field staff. We’ll be traveling quite a bit: to academies, OCF field staff locations, various military posts and bases—and visit our grads—to pray for others and provide pastoral care.
Parting advice for others who would consider organizing a mission trip?