LITTLE MOUNTAIN, S.C. — When wounded military personnel recovering in the Soldier Recovery Unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., are physically able, they venture into the great outdoors courtesy of a big-hearted veteran from South Carolina who knows the value of fresh air and sunshine to the body and soul.
Chuck McAlister, who was stationed in Georgia more than 40 years ago as a young Army officer, welcomes injured soldiers onto a 200-acre sanctuary at Little Mountain, S.C., where they can get away from the sterile confines of hospital rooms and experience nature at its finest.
McAlister spearheaded the creation of HomePlace Ministries for young men and women who have sacrificed for their nation. They’re invited here from bases across the country to experience a peaceful place where the stress of the world vanishes away, a holy place where the presence of the Lord is palpable.
Along with a group of like-minded Christians at Dutch Fork Church in Irmo, S.C., McAlister established HomePlace specifically to give injured military personnel a place where they can go with the assurance of anonymity to spend time with their Creator while enjoying His creation.
In the process, McAlister said, they’re finding spiritual healing.
“You have to remember, these wounded soldiers are really young, 19, 20, 21 years old,” said McAlister, pastor at Dutch Fork. “We bring them in on Friday evening, and a local restaurant provides a great barbecue spread for them. Over the weekend, they fish. They ride ATVs. They stroll through a 30-acre meadow and an apple orchard. They fish for striped bass on nearby Lake Murray. They are able to relax and let their hair down a little bit. They get in touch with the outdoors. And they get in touch with God.”
A soldier from Fort Liberty, N.C., who had been injured in a classified mission overseas caught his first fish in HomePlace’s 7-acre lake. The soldier had grown up in an inner city and was excited to catch his first fish. He stood on the dock wearing jeans, a Nike shirt, baseball cap, and a giant smile while posing with his largemouth bass.
“Catching that fish opened up a conversation about how Jesus said He would make us fishers of men,” McAlister said. “I explained what that means. He prayed on the edge of that pond, and he gave his heart to Jesus.”
Taylor Faraca, a member of the HomePlace board of directors, said soldiers who need service dogs also get them here at no cost. HomePlace Ministries purchases the dogs and pays for their training.
Gary Peters, a retired wildlife biologist who arranges outings on Lake Murray for the wounded soldiers, said outfitters eagerly volunteer their services and their boats because they want to show their appreciation.
“This can be lifechanging for the soldiers,” Peters said. “It’s not the fishing, but it’s knowing that people care about them.”
The soldiers, Peters said, may have been sequestered in hospitals for extended periods recovering from broken bones from training mishaps to wounds received in combat.
The entire Dutch Fork Church family has excitedly gotten behind the ministry, serving as volunteers to make weekend getaways special for wounded soldiers.
“They’re all excited to be a part of an organization that serves our heroes,” Faraca said. “We don’t give glory to anyone but God for what He’s doing through HomePlace.”
Faraca said she is honored to have an opportunity to serve wounded military personnel and disabled veterans.
“They are proof that freedom isn’t free,” Faraca said. “I have always had a special place in my heart for our military, because of the sacrifice they’ve paid. I see the correlation between their sacrifice and the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. These men and women are all about serving our country to preserve our freedom.”
The ministry has also been a blessing to McAlister who spent years traveling the country with his wife, Janice, as an evangelist.
“I had gotten tired of waking up wondering what city I’m in,” he said. “It gets harder when you’re in your mid-60s, so we started praying about finding some property so that people could come to us instead of us going to them.”
God answered those prayers, McAlister said, with the Little Mountain property where he envisions a lodge for soldiers and a community of tiny homes for those transitioning out of the military to civilian life. For now, they stay in a nearby private lodge, which serves as homebase for weekend activities.
“They’re out on the lake at sunrise, catching fish,” McAlister said. “We clean the fish and put them on ice so they can take them home with them.”
They attend a Sunday morning worship service at Dutch Fork Church where they’re honored for their service.
“We introduce them and our church gives them a standing ovation,” McAlister said. “We have special Bibles that we give them. We give them a link to a weekly internet television channel where they can watch a Bible study that we call Porch Talks.
It's McAlister’s own military background that gave him a tender heart toward soldiers. He graduated form Clemson University in 1975, commissioned a 2nd lieutenant, and deployed to the demilitarized zone along the border of South and North Korea. He later returned to Fort Gordon, Ga., which proved to be a foundational move for his ministry. He and Janice joined Gracewood Baptist Church near Augusta. They became youth directors there.
“I sensed that God was calling me into ministry,” he said. “He opened my heart and said you need to respond now. I went to the altar. My wife was already there.”
McAlister said he asked her what she was doing there.
“God is calling me to be a pastor’s wife,” she answered, before asking him what he was doing there.
“I’m here,” he told her, “because God is calling me to preach.”
His first assignment was interim pastor at First Baptist Church in Bartow, Ga., where preached for about three months. Next, he was called to be pastor at Woodland Park Baptist Church in Matthews, Ga.
His job as pastor was in addition to his active duty-military service, but the time came when the Lord impressed on him to go to seminary. He resigned his commission and enrolled at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., though he continued his military service as a reservist.
“The fact that I was a military chaplain for a long time is helpful,” he said. “That helped prepare me for what we’re doing now. Our specific purpose is helping people encounter Jesus. We’ve led over 250 people to Jesus since January. It has been blessing after blessing after blessing.”
Jeff McAlister, who manages the HomePlace property, said the military personnel often come in beat up, exhausted, and in need of time away. He’s able to see a transformation over the course of a weekend.
“The difference is like night and day,” he said. “We give them a time of rest and relaxation, and I find sheer joy in that. I’m the one who’s blessed by being able to help them.”