Andrew Dys

Gospel music in Afghan camp has S.C. flavor

The sound that comes from under a tent at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan on Saturday nights is not Afghan music, or the Afghan language. It is South Carolina voices singing South Carolina music.

The thundering bass voices, the sopranos and tenors and altos and those who can't sing a lick and try anyway.

The sounds of a gospel choir, accompanied by bass and guitar and keyboards, sung by soldiers from South Carolina.

In the audience, trying to sing along like at any church, beside those who don't have a hope for rhythm and trying to clap at the right time, are French soldiers and British soldiers and soldiers from countries who speak languages that know God by other names. They will rollick and roll shoulders and shout out because even in a desert, on the other side of the earth, in a war, there is time to sing about God.

Leading that choir will be a captain in uniform because the robes that were ordered never made it overseas. An Afghan tailor is trying to make some robes, but the preacher still is waiting. That preacher/captain used to be the preacher from Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Chester. The chaplain for the 218th National Guard Brigade, Iris Dickerson, is a woman who can sing and does sing because that is what lady preachers from Chester do.

When the time for praise is on, men and women in uniform don't worry about who hears what or sees what. The time to praise is on.

"Afghanistan is not home, but we brought part of home with us," said Dickerson, that Chester preacher from the Rock Hill armory who was shipped overseas in the spring, along with about 100 area soldiers who are among the almost 2,000 from the state who were deployed with the 218th Brigade. "One part of what we brought is praise. Praise keeps the faith in Afghanistan."

The gospel choir started with just a handful of people at a Mississippi base before the unit shipped overseas, yet has swelled to dozens. Black, white, young, old, Baptists, Methodists, AME Zion and anybody else who wants to join.

"We sing everything from traditional gospel to contemporary that people hear on the radio back home," Dickerson said.

As chaplain for Camp Phoenix, Dickerson and Lt. Col. Lawrence Dennis, her superior in the Brigade's noncombat services, minister to the needs of all those soldiers. She has started a women's ministry, music ministry, Bible study and more. The worship services have swelled in ranks to more than 200. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, they all show up.

One Afghan Muslim who works as a contract worker around the base -- "risked his life on a Sunday night" is how Dickerson put it -- to participate in services, Dickerson said.

And on Veterans Day in Afghanistan today, there will be church services held by Dickerson. She will preach to people whose children are growing up without them, who have missed school events and report cards and birthdays and anniversaries. She will see the tears and wipe those tears and she will say the same thing she tells herself when she thinks of her husband, Timothy, and sons, Xavier and Marketta.

"We are missing home, but all of us must do what we have to do to make it through until we go home," Dickerson said. "What has happened here is we have developed into a family. In families, people love each other and support each other. For me, sometimes I feel like I'm a mother with 1,700 children."

So today, as you read this and ask what you can do for Veterans Day, maybe you can do Iris Dickerson a favor.

"We need prayer, for strength and endurance," she said. "Prayer reaches Afghanistan. I believe it. I preach it every day."