Evangelical student ministry thrives at West Point
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 9/15/14, 02:22 pm
WEST POINT, N.Y.—At the United States Military Academy, one of the most popular and thriving officially sanctioned clubs is an openly evangelical Christian campus ministry. Officers’ Christian Fellowship, or OCF, has a database of more than 800 Cadets and an active participation of 400—nearly 10 percent of a student body of 4,400.
“We love what we do, but we’re pretty much engaged about six and a half days a week with Cadets or adults,” said retired Army Colonel Tom Austin, one half of the husband-and-wife team that has been running the OCF ministry at West Point for the past five years.
Austin and his wife Cheri, the fifth couple to be posted to West Point since the mid-1980s, run OCF out of a large, rambling old house with a deep, welcoming porch in the town of Highland Falls, less than a mile from the Academy’s main gate. Cadets drop by at all hours to relax in the cozy living room and watch sports on TV or chat with Cheri in the large commercial kitchen as she prepares a meal for the families of visiting Cadets. The OCF “Hospitality House” provides a venue for fellowship, but the heart of the Austins’ ministry is small group Bible studies, worship, and individual discipling. To do that, Austin gets unfettered access to most areas of the West Point campus.
Despite recent reports of a crackdown on expression of Christian faith in the U.S. military and hostility to Christianity at the U.S. Air Force Academy, West Point remains a place where Christians don’t have to hide.
“I go where I want to and I have the freedom to carry my Bible under my arm,” Austin said. “To sit in Grant Hall and work with a Cadet, or in the Library, or to pick one up at the Library corner and take him to Subway and disciple and work with him.”
OCF has such unrestricted access to both Cadets and officers at West Point because it is one of 100 officially sanctioned clubs under the Directorate of Cadet Activities, or DCA. In addition to its recognition, OCF has a lieutenant colonel who serves as its liaison with the DCA. Austin also works closely with the U.S. Military Academy Chaplain and her office at West Point.
When I asked him why religious freedom at West Point has not been attacked as it has at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Austin said he wasn’t sure. But he believes spiritual attacks began at the Air Force Academy during the tenure of Fisher DeBerry, the openly evangelical head football coach who worked at Air Force from 1984 to 2006.
“He first came to light when he had a Fellowship of Christian Athletes banner up in the locker room,” Austin said.
West Point may still be “under the radar” from such attacks because it has not had such a high-profile evangelical to act as a lightning rod for anti-Christian organizations.
Although Christians face more persecution in all branches of the military as America becomes more secular, Austin is optimistic about the future because the students he works with now will be the military’s future leaders.
“They’re better now than when I was [stationed] here in the 1980s—more willing to learn; smarter, brighter and quicker, and willing to lead Bible studies and things like that,” he said.
Knowing the Cadets he works with could face challenges, if not blatant persecution during their careers, he encourages them to focus on their faith, not their circumstances: “As believers [serving] in the military, we don’t have to fear any man or anybody. Our fear of God should be greater than that of any person.”
Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.