Lee McDade spends his days as a Christian missionary to Britain’s armed forces, which is perhaps a surprising vocation for someone who once said he wanted nothing to do with Christianity or the Army! His official title is “Army Scripture Reader”, an archaic phrase which he tells me goes back to the Napoleonic Wars, when the readers literally read the Bible to the illiterate soldiers in the lines. These days he’s much more likely to be found giving a copy of the New Testament to a soldier than reading it to one; but the role of offering spiritual support to the Armed Forces, with the Army Chaplains, has remained the same, as has the gospel message he shares. And, just like those original Scripture Readers he carries a Bible with him wherever he goes, and often opens it and shares its message. He works for SASRA , the “Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association”, who trace their work back to 1818, but have been organised under that name since 1938.
When I spoke to Lee, he was in uniform, in his office on Wattisham Camp in Suffolk from where the Army Air Corp fly Apache Helicopters. There, he shares army life with over 2000 people that he’s called to serve. Despite his cheery disposition, Lee is an imposing figure, who sized me up as ‘non-military’ within our first few seconds of meeting (correctly!). All SASRA scripture readers are former military personnel Lee explained, something really important for getting alongside soldiers as a trusted colleague who understands the unique pressures of active service as well as Army culture. As I spoke to Lee, it struck me that he was a brilliant example of what incarnational mission is supposed to be. After all, when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about how much he cared for them he said, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (1 Thess2:8) The more I listened to Lee, the more I saw a contemporary example of what that looks like. His commitment to the gospel of Jesus was as transparent as his obvious concern for the soldiers he serves – and his enthusiasm for mission infectious. “It’s an amazing privilege for me to serve amongst some of the best men and women I’ve ever worked with.” Lee says.
Lee has been with SASRA for 13 years. “I wasn’t a Christian when I was in the Army,” he recalls, “In fact, I hated Christianity as a soldier. My last tour of duty was in Bosnia, after which I left, angry and disillusioned. I began searching for answers, and as a result I became a Christian in 1999.” When I asked Lee about how he’d been called into SASRA his answer was intriguing. “I felt called to full-time ministry as soon as I was converted, I just wanted to share Jesus with as many people as possible”, he said. His calling into this work followed a decade later, when life with soldiers beckoned once again for Lee and his family.
Gütersloh, Catterick and Wattisham, are the bases Lee has served, and he says the archaic title “scripture reader” is really helpful. “A what?” is a common reaction when he is introduced, which gives him an opportunity to share his testimony and the hope he has in Christ. “My ministry consists of four P’s”, says Lee. “Prayer, presence, patrol and proclamation – and I do all four of those every day.”
When I asked Lee what a typical day in his ministry looks like he said. “When go into camp, I never know what is going to happen. So I make myself present – available to the soldiers, we are an arm of military welfare. Then I pray and I work with the chaplains. Then I go on patrol, I literally walk round the camp and chat to soldiers and civilian personnel. Where people are interested in the hope I have in Christ, I share that. Then I run Bible studies for anyone who wants to come.”
Every scripture reader works in different ways, but Lee says his favourite thing is just to walk around the camp, and strike up conversations. Opportunities are endless – and all that is in addition to garrison church services, Bible studies, prayer meetings and counselling services. Scripture Readers are often the first person a soldier with deep pastoral needs will confide in, and the welfare and chaplaincy teams value that, and the readers often refer people on for further assistance. “My business is to point people to Christ, and for that I use the Bible, my testimony and their questions as my main tools” Lee says – “I don’t do many formal evangelistic courses, I just open the Bible and share Jesus with them.”
“People are constantly interested in where I get my hope from – and I tell them it’s from my faith in Jesus – that’s what I’m here for” – says Lee. He clearly loves the people he serves, and he loves the gospel but regards the admin of the job as a necessary evil! “I often head for the smoking shelters and other social areas” Lee says, “I know there will be soldiers hanging about there, ready to chat, they are always a good places to be.”
Access to Army camps for Scripture readers like Lee is based on a memorandum of understanding between the MOD, SASRA and the Chaplaincy department, and they operate under the chaplaincy structures. “The fact that we are all ex-servicemen and women is really helpful for that relationship” Lee explained. “There’s a bit of red-tape to go through, but we are officially accepted and the Military (Army and RAF) really appreciate our welfare work with the soldiers. We don’t take our access to bases for granted, we work hard to get and maintain it because our ministry here is unique.”
Lee recalls that his time serving with the school of infantry was especially significant. Most of the soldiers there were young men, between 17 and 30 years of age who asked him all the questions of life. “Is there a God?”, “Why do you believe?”, “Why is there evil in the world?”, are just some of the questions he has been asked. Recruits there were being trained for the reality of war, and that generated all manner of profound questions which Chaplains and Scripture Readers are there to help with. “Your average young person maybe hasn’t thought much about death, but then they go to classes on morality in combat, dealing with mortality and so forth, and it makes them really think.” Lee notes. “When I first joined SASRA we were losing people every week in Afghanistan and we were working alongside young people preparing to go there and serve; and asking all those deep questions. Soldiers will ask anything – it’s a good job we’re all ex-military because nothing shocks us!” Lee said with a wry chuckle.
The ministry of the Scripture Readers can be hard work, punctuated with times of great blessing as well as what Lee calls “desert times”. Yet he says, it is unusual when he doesn’t have at least one gospel conversation in a day’s work. He says he’s learned to persevere through dry periods, trust God and “roll with the punches”. Technology has changed Lee’s ministry too, soldiers who get posted to other parts of the country or the world no longer disappear from his radar; but keep in contact with him through Facebook, WhatsApp and email. Lee says, “The Army is a small world, and veterans like to keep in touch with each other – to talk to people who have gone through similar experiences as them, so I am in touch with a lot of people all over the place.”
“When I share Jesus, some people avoid me, some mock, some agree, some ask questions and some say they want to know more about him and some trust in Him. It’s not a daily occurrence to lead someone to Christ, but it is without doubt the best possible thing to be part of. I’m a great believer in sowing as much gospel seed as possible. I heard the gospel again and again when I was a soldier and rejected it everytime, and only became a Christian years later when that seed bore fruit in my life. So even when people reject it, I don’t lose hope, but keep offering Jesus to them” says Lee.
I found speaking to Lee McDade both encouraging and inspiring, he’s clearly a man with a clear calling, in the right place, doing the right thing. I loved the way he is so committed both Jesus and the people he serves which is really a model for us all to follow in whatever field we find ourselves. As we drew our conversation to a close, because he was needed out on the base, he asked if Christians reading this could pray for him in his ministry. I couldn’t refuse a great request like that!
As you read this, the chances are that Lee McDade is standing in a soldiers smoking shelter, or in the post office queue, telling a young helicopter technician about the love of Christ. “Please pray for good opportunities for me to speak about Jesus”, he says – “and for wisdom and perseverance when things are tough. Ministry is a spiritual battle, a fierce spiritual battle, which can be hard so please do pray. We’re a charity, so you can pray for our finances too!”
Finally, speaking to Lee McDade made me think of Paul’s words in Colossians 1:3-6.
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.