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Church prays for protection of troops

On March 19, 2003, the United States and its allies began bombing Iraq. The invasion was a call to war for the nation and a call to prayer for St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Bertha.

St. Paul's has prayed for individual members of the armed forces every day at 8:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, since the war began, said the Rev. Blake Rickbeil. They also pray for the church, the United States, U.S. allies and the world.

Rickbeil gathered his wife, Dagny, and the church secretary to pray the litany "the minute I heard we had gone to war," he recalled. "They said we were at war, and I said ... 'Our troops need to be prayed for."

Parishioners heard about the prayer meeting through the week and started participating, he said. Rickbeil announced on Sunday that they would continue gathering for prayer.

That was more than three years ago. Rickbeil said that any number from four to 24 people attend the weekday meetings.

A small group of "usuals" regularly attend, Dagny said. Many of them know the litany by heart.

"These guys have come ever since the war started," she said. "That's a long time for them to come and do this."

One of the regular participants is St. Paul's member Susan Harms. She has seldom missed a prayer session, she said. Harms knows several people deployed in Iraq.

"I want to pray for the safety of our troops," she said. "I'm hoping the war will soon get over."

Bethel Melzer, a member of St. Paul's since 1952, attends whenever she is able to come.

"I think our boys need help right now," she said. "They need all the prayer they can get. That they make it home safe and sound, that nobody gets hurt."

The church prays for around 35 troops and 20 chaplains each day, Rickbeil said. St. Paul's will take the name of any member of the armed forces and pray for them. Anyone is welcome to join them in praying the litany, he said.

"This is what God's people do and we're good at ," Rickbeil said about prayer. "We pray because our lord is a gracious heavenly father and we are his children. He wants to hear our petitions and prayers so he can bless them and grant them."

Whenever he has a chance, Rickbeil said he gives a deploying soldier an armed forces devotional book that includes prayers for before and after battle, the Psalms, hymns, select readings and a catechism. The church prays for troops when they deploy, while they are overseas and when they return, he said.

Dagny said some soldiers experience difficulty readjusting to the community and still need prayer.

"People forget that when they come back there's a lot of things they've seen and done that they can't talk about," she said. "It takes time to adjust."

Many of the troops know that they are being prayed for faithfully week-in and week-out, Dagny said, and they are grateful. The practice of daily prayer meetings seems small in comparison to the troops' ordeal, she said.

"I can't imagine what they're going through being separated from friends and family for so long," she said.

Rickbeil said there isn't much they can do for the war other than support the armed forces and pray for them.

Until the war ends members of St. Paul's will continue to take their places in the sanctuary pews between the Christian flag and the U.S. flag and Rickbeil will kneel before the altar each morning.

"It's the least we can do for our troops," he said.