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Church joins soldiers in caring for Iraqi people

Church joins soldiers in caring for Iraqi people

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church joins soldiers in caring for Iraqi people

June 28, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0695}

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

Sheila Oakley speaks with deep conviction when she talks about her church’s “blankets” partnership with Army medic specialist Steve Stephens.

Stephens is equally impassioned about his appreciation for what Oakley and her church, First United Methodist Church of Lake Wales, have done to help him put new blankets into the hands of needy Iraqi families.

While on tour in Iraq, Army medic specialist Steve Stephens has been doing what he can to help the Iraqi people through a project to provide much needed blankets to families living in and around Mosul. Photo by Amy McCafferty, United States Army. Photo #07-0617.

Stephens initiated his unit’s Blankets for Iraq project while on tour in Iraq. The goal was to distribute at least 2,000 blankets that will provide warmth in the winter and shade in the summer. He says thousands of Iraqi people have no heat or electricity, making the blanket “more of a necessity then it is a want.”

“This is a passion for me,” Oakley said. “ … The Spirit just touched my heart … to stand behind and support our troops. It doesn’t matter what you feel about the war — whether you’re for or against it — it’s about supporting our troops. It’s about showing them the love of Christ.”

Oakley found Stephens through after searching for a new soldier her church could support. The church had been helping a unit that came home from Iraq in March.

“I started to pray that God would lead me to the next group of soldiers,” Oakley said. “I kind of wanted to support someone who was helping the people over there.”

Oakley wrote a letter to Stephens and his unit, and Stephens was thrilled to have her church’s support of the project.

“This is my first tour, and when I was back in the states, I knew I wanted to make a difference while being in Iraq,” Stephens, 34, wrote in an e-mail to e-Review. “The project (idea) came to me when I was outside my living quarters and I was thinking of people back home, as well as the people here in Iraq. I wanted to connect the two, with a need as well as a love.”

Meanwhile, the congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Jeff Kantz, embraced the idea.

“The congregation is tickled,” Kantz said. “They love being part of God’s work, and I love watching them.”

The congregation donated enough money for the purchase of about 300 blankets and helped draw attention to Stephens’ cause. At a price of just under $7 per blanket, the church purchased the blankets through a Web site called, the donation site for the project. Oakley said additional donations for about 150 more blankets were given and other groups who learned about the project have been buying blankets in support of Stephens’ idea.

As of June 18, a total of 2,317 blankets had been donated.

Although Stephens achieved his goal, the need is still there, and additional donations continue to be accepted.

Members of First United Methodist Church of Lake Wales signed a sheet “banner” and sent it to Army medic specialist Steve Stephens in Iraq to show their support of his blanket project and unit. Photo by Jane Bumgarner. Photo #07-0618.

“It’s been amazing to see God at work in all of this and how it’s just taken off,” Oakley said. “They have decided to pull the 2,000 (blanket) mark and take whatever America sends them.”

Stephens, who is from Portland, Ore., currently serves with the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division near Mosul and expects to return to the United States early next year.

“The blankets will go out on convoys very soon,” Stephens said. “ … We will take them to people in villages who have near to nothing.”

Kantz expects the blankets will go to people living in the vicinity of Mosul. The distribution will not be without danger.

“There are a lot of people who will risk their lives for this project,” Stephens said. “They believe in America and the kind hearts which people have shown by making a contribution.”

In early May, Stephens’ unit sent the church a special token of thanks.

“(It was) an American flag flown on convoy from Mosul to Qayyarah,” Kantz said. “They sent it to our congregation as a way of showing their appreciation for supporting the troops … we will display it folded, and we actually did a ceremonial flag raising (with it).”

Church members also recently sent a white bed sheet signed by the congregation to Stephens to show their love and support of the Iraqi people, Kantz said.

“The congregation has said these guys and gals need our support because it’s not a political issue for them. It’s a human issue,” Kantz said. “I’m just so proud.”

Members at First United Methodist Church of Lake Wales received a certificate of appreciation for their support and encouragement of the soldiers of U.S. Army 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division and their efforts to help families living in Mosul, Iraq. Photo by Gail Kantz. Photo #07-0619.

Support from all over the United States continues to pour in for Stephens. As of mid-May, people and groups in more than 25 states had made donations. Stephens hopes for full participation from at least two churches in all 50 states.

After he returns next year, Stephens said he plans to visit Florida.

“I hope to be in Florida sometime in March,” he wrote. “I want to speak to as many people as possible when I get to Lake Wales. Not about war, but about life.”

Individuals interested in making a donation to the project may do so by visiting, choosing the “Donations” option on the right-hand side of the menu bar at the top of the page and then clicking on “Soldiers Helping Those in Need — Iraq.”


This article relates to Missions and Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.