The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

November 27, 2013

From the cockpit to the church pulpit

By CAROL FERGUSON
Herald-Banner Staff

GREENVILLE — On the second Sunday in July, approximately 50 soldiers from an assault helicopter battalion based in Tulsa, Okla., showed up at the Methodist Church in Celeste to pay tribute to a former comrade-in-arms.

It came as a complete surprise to the newly appointed pastor, Jay Henderson, who had served as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot with the unit, the 2/285th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Bravo Company. Henderson had just recently resigned his job as a pilot to answer another calling — as a minister serving God.

His wife, Jamye, had known in advance of the soldiers’ plan to visit the church and provide lunch for Henderson’s congregation in the church’s fellowship hall, but she had kept the secret.

“They had turned this into a full-fledged training mission so the colonel couldn’t say ‘no,’” he explained with a grin. “This meant far more than any reward I’d ever received. It was a demonstration of their respect for me.”

Henderson, who was born in Oklahoma City and grew up in Ada, Okla., said he had dreamed of flying helicopters ever since he was a little boy.

“I joined the Army at 17, and at that age I needed my mother’s signature to join,” he said. “I had applied to be a Blackhawk crew chief, but my mother didn’t want me to be doing something that dangerous, so I went into military intelligence.”

His first deployment was in 2004, and ironically “it landed me in major offenses in Falluijah (Iraq),” he said laughing.

In 2004 a tragic event took place that strengthened his resolve to fly. His cousin Shane Colton, whom he was quite close to, was killed when his AH-64 Apache helicopter was shot down by insurgents near Abu Ghraib on Easter Sunday.

“My cousin had made the ultimate sacrifice, and I felt I needed to be a helicopter pilot, a warrant officer, and I needed to be flying in Iraq,” he said. “After my first deployment, I finished up my application packet.”

He was accepted into flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., in 2007. The training which took several years included warrant officer candidate school, survival school and actual flying.

During this time, Henderson also married his high school sweetheart, Jamye, two months after returning from his first deployment.

His wife was not happy about the prospect of his flying, and Henderson said he even considered giving it up altogether. “But God started talking to her. She realized she was keeping me in a safe little box, and that this was not God’s will, but hers.

“It was in Tulsa with the unit that I really learned how to be a pilot. he said. “I left for Iraq (my second deployment) in December 2009.”

While he was there, the transition to Iraqi sovereignty was beginning.

“We traversed the countryside in transportation of material support, troops and sometimes reconnaissance. One time we flew Seals to recover an Iranian drone spy plane.”

Henderson and his wife had children by now, and he explained his work to his youngsters, saying “Daddy takes the good guys to go get the bad guys.”

Today the family includes four children: Jade, 7; Jako, 5; and twins Jenika and Julliana, 3.

“My wife calls the twins her little monkeys, but they’re like wild raccoons,” he said, chuckling.

While he was in flight school, the couple had led a contemporary praise band for the base chapel. “I sing and play guitar, and she is an amazing vocalist, four times in All State Choir,” he said.

He said he was also beginning to feel the stirring of a religious calling.

“I was a conflicted individual, because I had really felt this (the military) was where I was supposed to  be.”

Talking to a chaplain, he said he received some wise advice. The chaplain told him that it is common to receive a call before the actual time to step into that role.

“He told me to discern my role and discover what it meant to be called.”

Henderson said he was the de facto chaplain where he was stationed, and  “... that helped confirm my call to the ministry. I was dealing with real guys and handling real problems, bringing good news to bad news situations.”

Feeling confirmed in his call to the ministry, he completed a bachelor’s degree in ministry and leadership from Oklahoma Wesleyan University and graduated summa cum laude. Calling himself “a cradle Methodist,” he is now in his first year at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

“My call to the ministry was my wife’s call too,” he said. “She is my rock.”

Henderson remains a CW2 (chief warrant officer 2) in the Oklahoma Army National Guard.

“In July when I became a pastor here in Celeste, I resigned my flight status,” he said. “I had been flying in disaster relief, wild fire relief missions which might be once or twice a week. It was so rewarding, but I couldn’t keep up my flight responsibilities, attend classes and still have time for my family. I‘ve got to pass my classes to keep my scholarships.” He now attends Guard “drill” one weekend a month, and says a layperson at the church fills in for him then.

His application for the Oklahoma Army National Guard chaplaincy is pending. “Chaplaincy will always be a component of my ministry,” he said, adding that as a result of attending the multi-denominational chapel on the post, “you learn to have dialogue with Calvinists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists ... we’re all good buddies working toward sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Henderson said he approaches the pulpit “with fear and trembling. I don’t take it lightly. Woe be unto me if I misrepresent ‘the good news.’

“I like this job,” he said in conclusion. “It’s overwhelming, and it keeps me on my knees.

“I am continually humbled at the blessings that have been heaped on me.”