A group to ‘be real with’
Building lifelong relationships are one of the things LT Sam Alexander, USN, has appreciated about several of the groups he’s been part of. He recalled experiencing those connections at a Bible study group in Bangor, Wash., that went deep into Scripture and allowed him to share what was going on in his life in a safe space where he knew vulnerability wouldn’t be met by betrayal.
Eventually, he transferred to a different duty station in Washington state, and while the OCF group was filled with new faces, Alexander says the dedication to Bible study and authentic living in this group remained familiar. During this time in his life, he hit a rough spot.
“The fact that I had that small group of guys I could just talk to and be real with was something I depended on heavily,” Alexander said. “I could go to them when I was having trouble and just vent or just let it out. And they’d be willing to listen.”
His small group stayed in contact with him while he was at sea and then made sure to keep him included when he got back home. The group, Alexander remembers, was an anchor of encouragement for him.
“I’d say that being involved in that small group was what restored me,” Alexander said. “Because I could get back, and immediately these guys were like, ‘Hey, man, how you doing?’ Just pouring into me immediately.”
Changing duty stations since then hasn’t meant abandoning relationships from those groups either. Alexander says he has remained in touch with people from several small groups. That’s been everything from periodic text messages to picking up a friend from a former small group at the airport when he needed a ride. Alexander also made sure to tell others about his appearance on the OCF Crosspoint podcast.
A ‘big extended family’
Joe and Kristi Chiaravallotti’s small group in the Washington, D.C., area started off with an intentional communications effort…and cuisine, in the form of quarterly potluck dinners.
The Chiaravallottis, both retired Navy commanders, got a list of OCF members in the area, and Kristi painstakingly called every name on the list to find out who didn’t live in the area anymore and who was still there.
“We knew that we have a dynamic area,” said Joe. “It’s not like being stationed on a base or a post somewhere where you have one center of mass and everybody focuses around it. There are tens of commands all around the area. Everyone is spread out, and everyone has good churches and good Bible studies they go to from their churches. So typically you don’t see a lot of people trying to pull OCF small groups together.”
The Chiaravallottis started hosting quarterly potlucks and invited all the OCF members from the area. They’d usually get around 18 to 20 people, but they were rarely the same people. At those potlucks, the Chiaravallottis would field the question, “Who would be interested in starting a Bible study?” For years, nobody expressed any interest. Then one year, it was nearly unanimous: “Yeah, let’s start a Bible study.”
For the past five years, they’ve led a group of members who have chiefly been serving in the early parts of their military careers.
“They’re going through getting married, having babies, buying houses, all that stuff that you do in your 20s,” said Joe. “And we have been able not only to provide Bible study for them, but also to bring them together as a group and have really true fellowship. There are times when we get together and have more fellowship than Bible study.”
Their group is all about what the Chiaravallottis call “doing life together.” They’ve done everything from hosting people in their home, to helping them with house-hunting, to even officiating the marriage of one of their small group couples—true story. For example, Kristi babysat for a mom in the group who played the music for the wedding and whose husband was ushering, while Joe officiated the ceremony.
“So that was really neat because all of us who were part of the Bible study took part in the wedding,” Kristi said, and also pointed out that other small group members had served in a variety of ways.
“We don’t view [weekly meetings] as, ‘OK, check that box off and go on with the rest of the week,’” Joe added. “This is an ongoing community that is doing life together. We’re constantly getting together. We’re constantly doing things together.”
How did they build a group like this? Joe says the answer comes from a model they followed during 20 years in the Navy—the wardroom, a group of all the officers on the ship. Because they moved every two years or so, they often ended up in a place where they didn’t know anyone. Joe says the wardroom would reach out to them before they left wherever they were moving from and help them transition into the new area.
“Those 20 or so officers—and their 20 or so families—would simulate a big extended family,” said Joe. “These were people who would bring you food if something went wrong, or babysit for you, in addition to helping you move in. And because everyone was always away from their actual extended family, the wardroom would serve as an extended family on holidays—with big gatherings and celebrations.”
It was this sort of dynamic—this sort of extended family re-creation—that the Chiaravallottis wanted to model their OCF small group after. And they have. They let everyone know that they’re welcome to come over for Easter or some other holiday (or the Super Bowl)—and people will show up.
A group of ‘lifelong friends’
Starting from scratch and not yet having embarked on her military career, there was no Navy model for Ashley to use when she set up the ROTC group at the University of South Alabama. Instead, she took a different approach.
“What was super helpful for me was talking to [the officer] who leads the OCF group at Auburn,” said Ashley. “Two weeks before school started again in December, I was like, ‘OK, I need some help figuring out how other people do this.’”
That leader at Auburn University is Col Tony Abernathy, USAF (Ret.), and in addition to several email exchanges with Ashley, Tony says he remembers her initiative in contacting him, asking questions, and following through on how to get started. And he remembers her drive—literally.
“Ashley’s not even at Auburn. She’s 3-4 hours away,” said Tony. “She came to the Bible study at Auburn. It was great for her to see other cadets, to talk about life and be encouraged, and to pray. Ashley is a gem.”
The help and encouragement Tony offered came from his own experiences participating in and leading small groups throughout his 25-year career in the USAF. While Tony is in his fourth year leading at Auburn, it’s actually part of a journey that has come full circle since his days as an Auburn student.
“When I came to the Lord in ’89 as an ROTC cadet here at Auburn, I was searching for other believers. I saw a flyer in the detachment advertising a ROTC Bible study. It was led by a CPT Jim Treharne (Army now O-6 retired). So I went and realized you could actually be a Christian serving in the military. I made lifelong friends from that group,” Tony recalls.
“So fast forward to 2016. We move back to Auburn after 25 years in the Air Force and I’m praying about the cadets and wanting to start something but have no idea how to make this work. An Air Force ROTC cadet, Gideon Wiff, goes to a Valor/OCF retreat and gets excited about starting a Bible study in Auburn and finds my name through someone at the conference and calls me to ask if I could help him start a Bible study. Amazing answer to prayer!”
As an OCF local leader, Tony says he makes sure he impresses upon the cadets some of the important advice and encouragement he’s received over the years, including one thing from Tom Schmidt that has stuck with him for years.
“He really solidified ‘if there isn’t a group, start one,’” Tony says. So, he and his wife once walked through their neighborhood handing out flyers about the Bible study group they were starting.
For himself and for the ROTC students with whom he has Bible study, Tony is big on community—about living life together. He says that while Bible study is key in a Christian community, living in community includes so much more—whether it be for Frisbee golf, going out for dinner, or other activities.
“We meet once a week at a local coffee house. Typically, we’ve had a few outings at the lake for BBQ and boating,” said Tony. “A few of the cadets have also asked to meet one on one for some mentoring. Being in a community group is life giving.”
Be ready to ‘stop and adjust’
While Tony says he either joined an already-established OCF group or started one at almost every assignment over his 25-year military career, Nathalie Chauta has experienced multiple OCF groups her entire life, but from a different perspective.
Nathalie grew up in OCF, and wherever her Air Force parents (Hous and Tami Waring) moved, they either joined the local OCF group or started one. Nathalie says she learned the value of hospitality and having people in her home.
“I can still remember being that kid who got up at midnight or 1 a.m. to get a drink of water only to find guests still in the house chatting with my parents,” she said.
Her husband, Shaun, had his first exposure to hospitality in a small group setting after enlisting in the Air Force. Shaun said he found himself attending a weekly Bible study at a local Cadence Hospitality House. That Bible study quickly turned into a multiple-times-per-week event.
“It was kind of a revolving door,” Shaun said. “So that was my first exposure to the idea that posting a group like that of like-minded believers would be not just a one-night thing, but that you could kind of make it a recurring thing throughout the week so you would share life together.”
After they got married, their first experience leading an OCF small group was at Robins AFB in Georgia from around 2013–2016. It was a small group that never grew beyond more than 10-12 officers, but it was during this time that they decided hospitality and leading small groups were things they wanted to commit to.
“And that was really, I think Nathalie and I as a couple, that was our first time thinking, ‘You know, we really want to do this and we hope that God can use this in our lives,’” said Shaun.
For the Chautas, building community within their small group started with transparency and authenticity. Shaun recalls that after moving to California, the group they were in started sharing prayer requests. The Chautas used the opportunity to share some of their struggles and what was going on with their lives candidly.
“We said ‘Look, this is a really hard season of our life, of our marriage, of our family. You know, we just moved and uprooted our lives. We had a group back in Georgia, and we were looking for that again,’” said Shaun. “So, we were just really honest.”
It wasn’t long before they found themselves leading and hosting that group, which grew to about 20 people in their home every week—sometimes several nights a week.
“We still joke about it now where I would come home from work and there would be people in the house and I hadn’t known that there were going to be people over,” said Shaun, who added that their lives felt like the book The Gospel Comes With a House Key, by Rosaria Butterfield.
“Basically, seven nights a week our house was open. It could be just one woman coming over to vent to Nathalie about a hard situation and her marriage and allowing Nathalie to speak truth into that situation, all the way up to our weekly Bible study night, where either I or one of the other husbands would lead the study, and we would just facilitate discussion.”
The Chautas say their commitment to openness and hospitality has allowed them to develop a deeper and more well-practiced faith as well. Shaun explains that he couldn’t imagine going through the Christian life as a military officer without the ability to run into another officer from his small group and spontaneously check in with him about how he’s doing—with work, with his witness, and the like.
“When I first enlisted in the Air Force, I would have said I was a Christian, but I wasn’t really walking with God in terms of, I wasn’t doing anything overtly rebellious against God. But I was just kind of stagnant,” Shaun said, adding that the group at that Cadence Hospitality House “would challenge me, would keep me accountable…. It completely changed my view of Christ and of the body of Christ and the church’s role.”
Nathalie says for her, what keeps her motivated to continually open their home in community with others is that it’s part of the sanctification process. “It’s not always easy to be in community,” she said.
Nathalie quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together to explain the mentality she’s tried to develop: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.”
“God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions,” she said. “And when you open yourself up to an OCF group, or any small group, you’re opening up yourselves to canceling plans and being ready to stop and adjust.”
A group that stands in the gap
While some OCF small groups are comprised primarily of one age demographic—for instance, Ashley’s group of college-age cadets or the Chiaravallottis’ group of 20-somethings—the community that has developed over the years at the home of Chuck and Donna Hendrick in Colorado Springs, Colo., is a multi-generational group that runs the gamut of ages.
“You know we have an older couple who are about 85, and he’s been retired from the Navy for quite a number of years,” said Donna. “And then we have us—we’re 70. And then we go down to people that are 50, and on down the line to lieutenant colonels and majors, and then there are lieutenants who’re just beginning their military careers.”
“I remember one young guy saying, ‘How do I cope with this really difficult boss? How do I do that in the military?’ And the major and the lieutenant colonel, they spoke to that. That’s what you need,” she explains. “Because maybe if you were home, you would say to your dad, ‘How do I do this? How can I put up with this?’ But you don’t have a dad here.”
The multigenerational makeup of the group seems to naturally create opportunities for mentoring, as the junior officers in the group have chances to interact with and ask questions of those who may have already run their race in uniform.
“They are very open to coming and fielding questions of us and using us as a sounding board for how they ought to react to things as a young Christian,” said Chuck, also acknowledging that there are challenges that young officers are having to deal with in today’s military “that we never, ever would have imagined having to deal with.”
The Hendricks say there are all sorts of questions being asked by the active-duty lieutenants in the group. Maybe there’s a situation with an NCO or a question about counseling a young soldier’s family that split up after he came back from deployment.
Donna says it’s important for the group to take this approach when building trust among its members: “There’s nothing that’s off limits. There is acceptance. So, you don’t feel that you’re coming in and anything would be a topic that wouldn’t be OK to throw out and have prayer over.”
For example, Chuck recalled an incident involving a lieutenant who was relieved of duty for something that wasn’t his fault.
“He was the platoon leader, and he was in charge when this tragedy happened,” said Chuck. “Who is your sounding board that you go to when you’re just grieving over something that’s happened in your military career? Right up until the last moment before this young man left, we were trying to support him, encourage him, love him, and help him along his way to figure out what’s next. We were here for him.”
Donna added: “And then the other young lieutenants were watching that because you never know when that’s going to happen in your career. You might think everything’s great, but things do happen in life. And your hopes and dreams are crushed. These deployments are very hard for these soldiers, to leave their families here for a year, but knowing that we’re going to stand in the gap for them is huge.”
Standing in the gap, as Donna puts it, has taken on many forms as they’ve witnessed numerous instances in their group of people banding together to do life together—outside of a single meeting time each week.
For example, some of the young guys might ping the Signal group-chat to say, “I want to hike this 14-er out here. Anyone done that before?” and then away four of them go. Or there’s the group member who pinged everyone to ask if someone has a fold-out bed that they can borrow for a guest coming into town that weekend. Or the group member asking for someone to come with her to get her car repaired. And a mother whose husband is deployed asking if someone could help with teaching her teenage son to drive.
“Our mission is to support Christians who are in uniform, regardless of the color of that uniform,” said Chuck. “We are here in a support role to help them grow throughout their military career. It’s not just sitting down and sticking our noses in the Bible study. It’s applying that stuff that you learned in the Bible study in your daily walk.
“So how can we wrap our arms around the active-duty military and our community and love on them and support them.”
Back in Mobile, Ala., Ashley is gearing up for another semester and the prospects of continued Bible study in the book of John, relationship developing, and community building.
“I don’t know the impact of having this group. I don’t know how much it’s impacted people. I don’t know where people are ultimately at with their relationship with the Lord, but it’s a step of faith,” says Ashley. “God will call us to do things we’re not going to ever fully understand on this side of heaven. But as long as we are following where He’s leading, that’s the important part.
“And I’m just encouraged now. That he gave me the courage to start the group. And I think it’s something I can look back on and say, ‘Okay, God was faithful here. He’s going to be faithful in the future as well.’”