Hollywood squares. Brady Bunch. Tic-tac-toe. Whatever you call it, OCF largely is doing fellowship in a virtual box so far in 2020 because of COVID-19. This digital frontier has not been without its share of challenges and disappointments, but amid the uncertainty, there are stories of opportunities found and unexpected blessings received from among the membership.

On December 31, 1943, the Officers’ Christian Union penned these two items in the Certificate of Incorporation: The Union would bind together officers serving in the Armed Forces who own allegiance to Jesus Christ, and it would encourage members in regular prayer, Bible study, and Christian witness.

When the authors of that document signed it, there’s no way they could have foreseen the challenges facing the ministry some 76 years later. And yet, despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, those two items haven’t changed. Instead, they just look different…for now.

In the absence of face-to-face fellowship, the primary alternative has been virtual fellowship, with everyone typically using Zoom and taking one’s place among the on-screen squares. For a ministry that has prided itself almost exclusively on in-person fellowship since its inception, the virtual space lacks a human element that cannot be reproduced in a digital environment.

Photo by Christina Harbridge

Driveway Devotionals: Sidewalk chalk became a tool for sharing Scripture with neighbors near Leavenworth, KS.

It’s a sentiment echoed by many people, such as Col Chet Arnold, USMC (Ret.), who is the OCF Field Staff Rep in Pensacola, along with his wife, Michelle. He sums it up best when he says OCF has been forced to conduct business from a distance.

“The intimacy of the coffee shop is gone and replaced with the less-than-intimate realm of online communication. There is no touch, no handshakes, no hugs, no pats on the back.”

Arnold says the loss of the togetherness of serving alongside one another is one example of the challenges associated with virtual ministry. “For instance, in the context of hospitality this includes helping prepare, set up, serve, and clean up. No need for any of that over Zoom!”

The loss of togetherness in the context of hospitality, as Arnold describes it, is something especially evident to small group leaders CDR Wendell and Mary Holmes, USN.

“I greatly miss cooking for our study and filling our home with tables to accommodate the small crowd that comes for dinner,” said Mary. “There is a special experience that is shared when we are able to gather together to eat and fellowship around a common table, and that just can’t be replicated online.”

Their group is made up mostly of families with small children, but unlike some small groups, there is no childcare. The children who attend participate in the whole evening—sharing a meal together, singing, Bible study, prayer, and of course, dessert afterward.

“We’ve found that it’s much more difficult to hold the attention of the kids during an online meeting time, and we really miss hearing more of their contributions to the evenings. You never know what you’ll hear when you call on a child during Bible study!”

For example, there’s this prayer from Eli, 5, who was the volunteer to close prayer time at the end of a recent online OCF study.

“He began his prayer by saying, ‘Dear God, thank you that we get to have OCF and we get to study the Bible and learn more about the Bible.’ Group prayer—even over Zoom—has been one of the most refreshing and encouraging parts of our week during this time!” Wendell said.

However, Wendell says the lack of face-to-face fellowship is impacting the children in a different way.

“These kids are also really missing relationship with each other. Much of their friendship is formed over play, as opposed to the conversation-based relationships that many of the adults have built. While many of our conversations have continued, the play time hasn’t been able to.”

“The intimacy of the coffee shop is gone and replaced with the less-than-intimate realm of online communication.”
—Colonel Chet Arnold, USMC (Ret.)

Despite the limitations that online communication places on fellowship, some have chosen to look for ways to be intentional about staying in touch despite the physical separation, and in some cases, the quarantine has afforded chances to connect that might not have been so easily available before COVID-19.

At Travis AFB, TSgt Ryan Padgett, USAF, said virtual meetings have become a way of life for many, but it has also opened up a unique capability to meet up with old connections. “We have rarely stayed in close touch with many of the folks that have come through our ministry and PCSed, but now, via Zoom, we’ve been able to connect back with them! Maybe when we’re all able to meet traditionally again, we might have someone put their phone up and activate Zoom for anyone that’s TDY, deployed, or has since left, but still wants to stay connected.”

LTC Jim Harbridge, USA (Ret.), and his wife, Christina, are the OCF Field Staff reps at Leavenworth. For Harbridge and his team of volunteers, learning how to maximize technology to connect people and provide resources has been essential during the pandemic. Harbridge has hosted Discipleship Training Breakfasts and Neighborhood Bible Studies on Zoom, collaborated with other ministry leaders (Youth for Christ, Men of the Chapel, Awana) to learn and understand the technology for use with their ministries, and developed Leavenworth OCF’s social media to encourage and connect people.

“We have been more deliberate in connecting with people. Reaching out via email and phone to people in our book of ministry to whom we had not had the chance to reach out yet. We have taken blessing bags of candy and encouraging Scripture and delivered it to our regular partners and supporters.”

Harbridge says this is just a way to show them that “in the midst of uncertainty, we love them and are praying for them.”

“We have tried to point people in our own neighborhood to God by leveraging neighborhood driveway chalk events to share Scripture. This developed into ‘Driveway Devotionals’ on social media after we had overwhelming positive feedback from neighbors.”

He’s quick to point out another item of praise, too: “Also, my daughter accepted Christ this week.”

Harbridge’s deliberation to connect with people and stay in touch with them is something others have underscored as well.

“The importance of more frequent interaction becomes apparent. More texts, calls, emails, and snail mail help fill the void along with online video calls,” said Arnold of OCF Pensacola.

PK Carlton, Associate Field Staff at USAFA OCF, highlighted the “passion of our ministry team to invest in the cadets, check on them, invest in them, love on them, and work with them to disciple them. It has been neat to watch and see their hearts for their cadets.”

Maj Rob Crespo, USAF, leads an OCF group in the Hampton Roads Region that is a mix of military, former military, officer and enlisted, and civilians. He says the greatest challenge has been keeping tabs on people to see how they are “really” doing.

“There are so many non-verbal cues that are easily missed. I believe we must ask tough, pointed, and challenging questions with our Christian brothers and sisters. This will help expose hidden sins, depression, and anxieties. Then we can begin godly accountability, encouragement, and support.”

Capt Kaitlyn Sprague, USAF, says not only has she been blessed to have a job and job security during a time when many people are in a much more precarious situation, but she also has been blessed with all the time at home to spend with her husband, Matt, also an Air Force captain.

“We both just got back from a deployment right before everything locked down, so this has been a great time to reconnect and enjoy spending a lot of time together. It’s also provided a lot of time to call friends and family and check up on people that I don’t get to talk to on a regular basis.”

That’s not to say this season hasn’t been fraught with challenges for Sprague, especially during the stay-home restrictions.

“There is so much uncertainty; it feels like a state of in-between. I should be working, but I can’t. I want to enjoy the rest, but sometimes I feel bored. I feel pulled by a lot of different emotions and no one knows how long it’s going to go on,” she said. “I think when life is rolling along smoothly it can be easy to forget our utter dependency on God, but disaster, hardship, struggle, suffering, and lockdown are a break from the routine and wake us up to the reality that in hardship and in blessing, we deeply need Him. And the beauty is that He’s here in the hardship, and therefore, there are little bits of good and gratitude when things are hard, if we’re willing to look for them.”

“In hardship and in blessing, we deeply need Him. And the beauty is that He’s here in the hardship.”
—Captain Kaitlyn Sprague, USAF

Without question, this has been a season of anxiety and uncertainty for many, particularly those graduating the academies and ROTC. Graduation and commissioning for our nation’s newest officers looked a lot different this year.

In Oxford, Miss., MIDN Isaiah Walker never put on a cap and gown, never walked across a stage, and never stood in front of a crowd in his dress blues—mameluke sword at his side—to swear an oath with his brothers in arms.

“Instead, I received an email from the university in early May stating my graduation requirements had been reached and I had attained my degree. I was then able to put on my woodland MARPATS, stand in front of close relatives in my living room, look into a laptop camera, and swear the oath—soon after signing my commissioning warrant in that same room,” says Walker, now a 2ndLt. “In the Marine Corps we are proud of our heritage, we thrive on knowing our history and what it represents. COVID-19 has shown that even when we cannot exercise our traditions as Marines, we are still Marines, and there is still a mission to be accomplished. Whether on a stage or in a living room, I had the privilege of commissioning into the best fighting force this nation has ever seen, and that is all that matters.”

USAFA cadet Chipu Chu and his classmates learned in early April that the Superintendent would graduate the class of 2020 much earlier than planned. Under gray skies, surrounded by the silence of an open pavilion devoid of family and spectators, the cadets spread across the open field in appropriately socially distanced chairs as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered the commencement address.

“While we don’t quite look like the usual graduation at the Air Force Academy, let me tell you this is an awesome sight, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” said Pence. “The American people are doing their duty. Now comes your turn to do yours—to defend the people of this nation, and this we know you will do. For long after the coronavirus is defeated, your mission will go on.”

Chu, now a second lieutenant working on his Master’s degree at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, said he and the majority of his classmates were prepared to accept the new reality that this was not going to be a traditional commencement experience.

“Not having the expected Falcon Stadium graduation did not bother me at all. I was more than content to be able to graduate and earn my ‘butter bars.’ I know for some this was a very big deal, because they were planning on inviting dozens of family and friends to graduation. In the end, I can say that the majority of my class was happy to have this unique graduation experience, knowing that the bond that we felt as a class during the last month was unforgettable.”

ENS Jeremy Douglass, USN, was among those expecting a large turnout of family and friends when he graduated from the Naval Academy.

“There is a certain amount of disappointment I have felt over not being able to have a graduation ceremony, especially since I was planning on having about 20 guests. However, the satisfaction in knowing I am doing my part in protecting others outweighs that disappointment. That is why I applied to the academy in the first place, and that’s why I am willing to sacrifice something that holds only sentimental value, to protect others.”

“Whether on a stage or in a living room, I had the privilege of commissioning into the best fighting force this nation has ever seen, and that is all that matters.”
—2ndLT Isaiah Walker, USMC

But the weeks leading up to graduation, as the COVID-19 crisis was just getting under way, uncovered personal and spiritual challenges for some that previously might have gone unnoticed. The disruption of daily routines revealed one thing in particular to 2ndLt Walker—just how consumed he was with being busy.

“I do not say this in a negative light, as in the military if you aren’t busy with something, there is almost certainly something you should be doing. However, my busy life was starting to consume me—it was beginning to pull me deceitfully away from the path God has set me on. I just never noticed until our world came to a screeching halt.”

When USCGA Cadet Brigit Jogan was living in Chase Hall with some 1,000 other cadets, there was no shortage of interactions. “I saw everyone at meals, formation, between classes, during classes, studying, on watch, working out… it was actually a struggle to ever be alone. Now, we are scattered around the country. Fellowship isn’t built in anymore.”

Jogan, who is now an ensign, went on to describe how the no-move orders revealed a lack of quality interactions she had before the pandemic, despite frequently being around others. “Now, when I get to talk to a Christian friend on the phone, we can’t talk fast enough about what we are learning and what God is doing—a far cry from wasting precious conversations by complaining about morning drill practice or assignments.”

Such revelations are lessons Jogan says will come in handy as she transitions to ensign life and isn’t surrounded by fellowship anymore. “I get to practice choosing God, spending time with God, and spending time in fellowship before I’m on my own,” says Jogan. “I get to learn how to live as a Christian without my academy support system right at hand, but still with support. I get to see the importance of staying in contact with other Christians.”

Throughout the ministry, God has been revealing Himself to members in variety of ways, such as bringing a fresh perspective to certain passages of Scripture that come to mind. As 2d Lt Chu put it, he has “experienced God and His Scripture intimately in so many ways. Verses that have never struck a chord in me now reverberate loudly.”

And the chord that seems to ring loudest is summed up in one resounding word: trust. 2d Lt Chu said the COVID-19 period has been a time to refine his faith and trust in God, and doing so starts with understanding that even before COVID, we were never in control— “it was only a mirage.”

“Now, when that mirage has been stripped away, we can really learn to rest in God’s peace, one that is starkly different than that of the world’s,” said Chu. “I know this is a tough period for many, but I also know that God wants us to grow more intimate with Him, so if we remain steadfast onto God, then I know this period will not be wasted.”

ENS Douglass echoed that sentiment as he recounted the USNA OCF mission trip to Belize, just before the COVID shutdowns, in which Matthew 6:25-34 was impressed on the group through their interactions with some of the local people.

“Many of these people lived in extreme poverty, but when asked what we could pray for, they asked only for the health of their families. They relied on God for everything, trusting that he would take care of them. This was a bit of a paradigm shift from the head knowledge that God takes care of us to the heart knowledge of that,” he said. “I know that everything will be alright. God is in control, even if my plans are having holes poked in them. If there is anything that I am learning in this crazy time, it’s to trust God more.”

2ndLt Walker says he has also learned to appreciate this season for what it is—a time of adversity and the showing of God’s sovereignty.

“Just as James 1:1-4 tells us, trials are inevitable, and the attitude we decided to take during those trials determines whether the goal of endurance attainment is reached. Over the last few months, we have had little to no control over the virus, our incomes, our travel plans, or even the adequate education of the younger generation. Yet in all of it, if we as a nation—as Christian military leaders—can see it for what it is, we can grow stronger and better equipped for future trials.”

“I don’t think any of us should maintain the attitude of ‘hunkering down’ until this crisis is over so that ministry can go back to the way it was.”
—TSgt Ryan Padgett, USAF

There are other blessings the lessons of virtual fellowship are teaching, too. For one, it is forcing the ministry and its members to embrace technology as a means of communication where adoption of such technology might not have been quick to catch on before the start of the pandemic.

LCDR Matt Peden, USN, who leads OCF at NAS Meridian, Miss., with his wife, Anna, says the online meeting format does have value that he plans to offer even after things return to “normal.”

“When we get back to normal ops, we plan to offer a virtual option for those who are not feeling well or whose children need an early bedtime, and the active duty can still participate while on det,” says Peden. “Two of our members have joined remote ministry teams that began because of this pandemic. One is reaching out to those who are ill and facing death, and the other one is involved with a call center that answers questions people have about Christ.”

Arnold of OCF Pensacola said they sometimes used online video calls, texts, and emails before the pandemic to maintain relationships with those they have mentored, and they are likely to expand the use of online video calls to maintain those relationships and also with those who have identified a willingness to serve as local leaders, POCs, and hospitality home hosts.

“Due to flight schedules, there are frequently last-minute adjustments or cancellations of coffee shop meetings,” he said. “Once a relationship is established, the online video call option now seems like a great way of maintaining a weekly rhythm in the face of those unpredictable flight schedules.”

With some of the restrictions for gathering and travel likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, how effectively OCF can augment traditional studies with online or video sessions and can adapt to whatever the world’s “new normal” may look like could go a long way in helping OCF in its mission over the next 75 years.

TSgt Padgett said he believes the key is to make sure we make the most of every opportunity as the Apostle Paul exhorts believers to do in Ephesians 5:15-17.

“I don’t think any of us should maintain the attitude of ‘hunkering down’ until this crisis is over so that ministry can go back to the way it was. People are in need of the fellowship of Christ and our small groups more than ever,” Padgett said. “This is a unique and big opportunity to meet people’s needs when it’s a BIG need! It doesn’t require extra money, or extraordinary effort—only that we adapt as a ministry and make ourselves findable now, before the crisis is over. If we build those relationships in crisis, I’m hopeful that many of them will continue after it’s over.”