For some people, life just kind of happens. For others, there sure seems to be some divine guidance — and maybe a little grandparently influence — in the direction they go.
Such is the case for Jeff and Lea Brooks, Salvation Army lieutenants who serve at the ministry in Mount Airy.
The couple have served in Mount Airy for a little more than three years, having come to the local Salvation Army post in June 2017. Their family has also grown along the way, with 2-year-old Jeffrey and another child on the way, due this autumn.
The two met while in college at Mars Hill University, not far from Asheville, where their desire to serve was quickly evident. In fact, each was attending the college on a Bonner Scholarship from the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation. Similar to many scholarship programs, it is based on demonstrated merit of the applicants and financial need, but an equally important component is commitment to community service. Bonner scholars are required to complete 10 hours of community service each week while in school.
“A lot of that work was with the Salvation Army in Asheville,” Lea said recently.
Although she had grown up just outside of Atlanta, Lea had ties to both the Salvation Army and the Asheville area — her grandparents were long-time officers with the Salvation Army, retiring from the mission in Asheville.
“We already had the love to serve,” Jeff said, adding that working with children, youth, and other people through the Salvation Army and other organizations “meant a lot to me.”
The longer they were in that community, the more they became involved with various ministries. Lea, in particular, was drawn more into the work of the Salvation Army.
“The officer there…asked me if I wanted to help,” Lea said of her first opportunity to take on more responsibilities there. She was excited about the chance, seizing on the offer.
“My first job with the Salvation Army was volunteer coordinator and Angel Tree coordinator,” she said, excitement bubbling up at the memory. Lea, she makes clear, really enjoys working with Christmas programs, and that first work with the Salvation Army was right up her alley, though a little overwhelming at first.
“She literally just handed me a folder with all the files in it,” and that was her introduction to the program. “I had to learn as I went,” she said of overseeing the program.
Jeff explained that was no easy feat, given that the Christmas Kettle program there included 25-30 locations.
From working with Christmas programs, Lea gradually began taking on some of the ministry’s human resources, or HR, duties.
“I became the HR assistant volunteer coordinator and events planner,” she said, with a laugh at the length of the title. “I enjoyed it, I was looking to go to school to do more with HR.”
Along the way, Jeff was working in various positions. He spent a year as a teacher, and while public school teachers aren’t allowed to overtly proselytize, he said it was not at all unusual for some of the kids to come up to him and ask if he was a Christian. “They could see that in me.”
Though he was no longer teaching at the time Jeff was still working with kids through the Boys and Girls Club while Lea was moving more toward what she thought would be a career in HR.
By this time, others around them had suggested they consider taking on the role of professional ministry through the Salvation Army.
“People started talking to us about officership, but we just wanted to be good church members, good soldiers,” Jeff said, adding that to consider going into full-time ministry, he needed to hear the call from God.
That came soon enough, in a way that the two said it was clear, this was truly a calling.
Lea said she was at an HR conference one day, then was driving home when she felt God reaching down to her, and she can still recall the words that came to her mind, as if planted there. “I don’t want you to just work for the Salvation Army. I want you to lead. I want you to be an officer.”
While she didn’t actually hear the words, she said it was clear they were coming from above.
As life often is, that day was far too packed with tasks and schedules for her to be able to talk with Jeff about the calling, or even mention it to him in passing. Unbeknownst to her, Jeff had his own interaction with the Almighty that day.
“I was at a men’s camp in Denton, and they had an alter call. I went up, I said to the Lord ‘whatever you want me to do.’”
He got his answer quickly, knowing almost immediately that God was calling him to full-time ministry as a Salvation Army officer.
That was a Wednesday, and the two of them had been apart — separated by more than a hundred miles — all day. They hurried home to make it to church services that night, and during the service Jeff said he leaned over to his wife: “I’ve been called to lead,” he whispered.
The two of them said Lea turned to her husband, smiled and replied “I have something to tell you.”
“I thought I was in trouble,” he said recently, laughing at the memory and his nervousness over what her reaction was going to be.
That night, he learned her “something” was that she had received the same call that day.
Soon enough, the two had left Asheville and were in Atlanta, taking part in a two-year Salvation Army seminary program, and then they were sent to Mount Airy.
The Salvation Army, and its leadership structure, is different from other churches and ministries in many ways, among them being so involved in distributing food, clothing, and other assistance to the needy, in addition to preaching, teaching, and counseling on spiritual matters.
“I’ve heard it said, and it makes sense, that we’re bi-vocational,” Lea said when discussing the challenges of the ministry. “We do the administrative work of a church, we do the administrative work of a non-profit, but we do the ministry…as well.”
One of the keys to their ministry has been the support they have found in Mount Airy.
“We’re really blessed here,” Jeff said. “We have a top-notch staff,” with a great deal of experience. Within the ministry portion of the operation, he said the person with the least tenure has been there 18 years.
One surprise they had upon moving to Mount Airy — a nice surprise given Lea’s love for the holiday season — is the size of the local Christmas effort, particularly the annual Christmas Angel Tree program, which served about 1,900 local children and teens last year.
“That was kind of eye-opening,” Jeff said. “Most small towns this size might serve 400 to 500.”
“I love it,” she said. “We have such a supportive community here.”
Another challenge not faced by most other ministers is the possibility of being transferred to another location. While the Brooks have been in Mount Airy for more than three years, they both said the Salvation Army regularly transfers its officers from one location to another as a result of retirements and the occasional person leaving the ministry.
“That usually happens in April,” Lea said of the reassignments. On the third Sunday of April is when it often occurs.
“You’re sitting by your phone shaking like a leaf. If you get the call you know you’re moving. If you don’t get the call, you’re staying,” Jeff said.
While they’ve enjoyed their time in Mount Airy, and eagerly look toward much more ministry work for months, and even years to come, the couple said they both have to prepare as if they will be moving every spring.
“I’m expecting a call in April,” she said. “If we don’t get the call, that’s great. But we’ve already began to do some things, to get things done that we’d need to finish up if we do go.”
Ultimately, though, the couple said they leave it up to the Lord to determine where they will serve. That’s how they ended up joining the Salvation Army, it’s how they found Mount Airy, and they believe it’ll be how they find their next post — even if that post is another year, or more, in the Granite City.