When anyone wants to join the St. John Lutheran Church in Vacaville, California, Pastor Chris Hoppe sets a time to meet them. For example, Robert and Aimee Baird, who enjoyed a dinner with Pastor Hoppe.
The Bairds, along with their three sons, recently moved to the area after Robert assumed the Deputy Group Command Position in the 60th Mission Support Group at the Travis Air Force Base.
The conversation that evening sparked something new for both a U.S. air force base and the Jesus Cares Ministries (JCM). While sharing news about their family, the Bairds mentioned their youngest son, Jacob, was autistic.
This was significant as the Bairds’ son wasn’t the only one with special needs on the base. Travis Air Force Base has approximately 600 families with a special-needs person. The military has the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) to help manage the care and provide services for any family member with special needs. This program provided support for physical, psychological, and emotional needs but, at that time, it did not provide for spiritual needs.
Pastor Hoppe discussed JCM with the Bairds and how the program shares God’s Word with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families, and communities. This prompted Pastor Joel Gaertner, national director of JCM, to visit St. John Lutheran Church and the military base.
Two months later, Pastor Hoppe, Aimee Baird, and several volunteers from St. John’s hosted the first Worship at the Cross service on the Travis Air Force Base. Since then, they have continued to host monthly services as part of the first JCM program at a military base.
As the program is new, there are many opportunities. “We have a couple of families that are really excited about it. The chaplains here on base have been very receptive to working together on it as well,” explained Aimee. “We have had four different families join us. The pastor continues to remind us that, even if it’s just Jacob, we are still serving the special needs community.”
This program has been blessed with new opportunities to reach out to the special needs community on the base. For example, the JCM hosted an Easter event. Also, during a dinner hosted by the chapel, the JCM provided a sensory room. “We were able to sing our songs and introduce our ministry to around 50 children with special needs,” explained Pastor Hoppe.
Access to the base is a blessing, according to Pastor Hoppe, “The chaplains shared a year pass for me to go on base and to be as involved as much as I want to be. They have given me this freedom and trust, which is really humbling. To be able to go on base and preach the Gospel is a victory.”
The JMC work at the Travis Air Force Base has opened up a conversation with WELS Military Services about the opportunity to have similar services on other military bases. Pastor Gaertner and Pastor Hoppe recently attended the WELS Military Contact Pastors’ Conference held at Camp Pendleton to explain the work being done at the Travis Air Force Base.
“This is an exciting partnership for Jesus Cares Ministries. Working with the EFMP program allows our ministry to reach and share God’s love with so many more individuals with disabilities,” explained Pastor Gaertner. “The growth opportunity is vast when you think about military bases across the country.”
“To hear how excited everyone is about this opportunity is amazing. The idea that nobody had thought of this partnership before often surprises me. It just took that one little spark in a conversation with the pastor,” said Aimee.