Church's efforts went a long way in Vietnam
The Brotherhood and Woman's Missionary Union have been part of that backbone for as long as anyone can remember.
It's small actions like that taken by the Vilulah Brotherhood on a dark night 42 years ago that underscore the need for ministry groups led by men in churches of all sizes -- groups that rally around those in need in the community and provide a Christian witness.
Terry Tobert, one of many farmers who call Vilulah their church home, remembers his father Jack taking him to Brotherhood and associational meetings when he was a boy.
"Back then that's about all there was going on in the county, so it was exciting for me," he said with a chuckle.
"My dad and uncle, Herbert Blackburn, were leaders in reaching out to others in need in our community, and that's where I learned those values. If a house burned they would help raise the money and actually help rebuild the home. They regularly went door-to-door to ask for funds to help others.
"As you get older you realize that your dad was an even better man than what you gave him credit for," Tobert said.
"Back in those days the Brotherhood had a pretty active card ministry to soldiers as well as our missionaries. They met once a month but they had a strong group, meeting for about three hours for Bible study."
Tolbert's father died in 1987. In September, just before a letter was received from a Vietnam veteran, the remaining two Brotherhood members who participated in sending the cards died.
When Jack Tolbert and Henry Blackburn and others wrote those notes to U.S. servicemen in 1970, the Brotherhood numbered about 15; now it is down to about a half-dozen and the church has dwindled to 50 members.
Bivocational pastor David Murphy, who has served the church since 1998, said increasingly there are fewer people in Randolph County because of the recession and residents moving elsewhere to seek employment. In fact, the city of Coleman was abolished by Georgia House Bill 1120 effective Jan. 1, 2007. Only 149 residents were recorded in the 2000 census.
Yet churches like Vilulah continue to play an important role.
"Our Brotherhood is important on so many different levels," the pastor said.
"It provides a sense of community for the men, an opportunity for Bible study and spiritual growth, and offers a channel for community outreach. The men regularly take up a collection for those in the community who are in need," Murphy said.
"In our little community the men will pull together to get groceries or cut an ill neighbor's grass, cut up a downed tree after a storm. It's really like a small version of Mayberry. We look after each other in the name of Christ."
Murphy remembers well the day he pulled the letter from Jack from the church mailbox.
"When I saw it, I thought it was from someone sending a memorial contribution in memory of someone who had passed away. But as I began to read it I was deeply touched, having served in the military myself.
"The letter made me real proud to know that the Brotherhood did something like that and made a difference in a stranger's life. When you're in the military far from home it really lifts your spirit to know that someone is thinking of you.
"As a soldier once, changing airplanes in St. Louis during the war, a fellow soldier and I were spit on by some protesters in the airport. This gesture by our Brotherhood affirmed Jack and others and let them know they were appreciated in the middle of a very unpopular war," Murphy said.
"I knew that our Brotherhood was a nice group of men, but this lets you know they are nicer than nice. They could have said, 'We don't know anyone serving over there. What difference will it make to send cards to strangers?' Jack's response is the answer to that question.
"I can't tell you how much it has meant to our church and the entire community," Murphy said of the letter. "Because we live in such an economically depressed area, something like that -- a pat on the back -- really boosts our spirits. I've shared the story many times and folks comment on how rare it is to get a reply like that.
"You know, I believe that if someone has impacted your life, you need to thank them for it and let them know they made a difference in your life. It's like sending flowers to someone before their funeral.
"Don't wait too long. Thank someone for the blessing they have been while you have the chance and while they can still hear it," the pastor said.
Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).