Rachel Sherburne, a former missionary serving troops and families turned business owner/speaker, served in the Air Force in Baghdad shortly after Saddam Hussein’s death and right as the troop surge began. Her experience of living out her faith in the military inspired her to begin a career ministering to her brothers and sisters in the Armed Forces.
4word: Before we begin, thank you for your service to our country! What led you to join the Air Force?
Rachel: Thank you and it was my honor to serve. My grandfather served in the Army as a translator in WWII, my father is a retired Air Force pilot who served more than 27 years, and my brother is still active duty, serving as an Air Force intelligence officer at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. I guess you can say military service runs in my family!
In high school, I had my sights set on acting and was planning on moving out to Los Angeles after graduation to try to break into Hollywood. It wasn’t until my dad encouraged me to apply for an Air Force R.O.T.C. college scholarship (which I won) that I even considered military service. At that point, the luster of life in California was waning and though I wasn’t quite sure what I was called to do, having a free college education and a guaranteed job after graduation was too good of a deal to pass up. So, I chose to go to Louisiana State University on a full R.O.T.C. scholarship. After graduation in 2004, I was commissioned as an officer in the United States Air Force and moved to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to begin my first assignment as a Public Affairs officer.
4word: Tell us about how your experience at a church in Baghdad ignited a passion for ministering to those around you.
Rachel: I arrived in Baghdad a few weeks after Saddam Hussein was executed and right as the troop surge in Iraq began in early 2007. It took some time adjusting to 12-14 hour night shifts, but more so dealing with the sobering realities of war. I worked in the Joint Operations Center, which was the “information hub” of everything going on in Iraq. My job was to help send out press releases and answer questions from the media about IED attacks, deaths, and helicopter crashes – all of which were steadily increasing. I was also responsible for researching how the media worldwide was portraying the U.S. and our operations in the news. Three days a week, I prepared and briefed the 3-Star general and other senior leaders during our Battle Update Assessment meetings.
I felt fortunate to be working in one of Saddam’s former palaces on a relatively safe and secure military base, but other troops were patrolling streets and dodging bullets and IEDs in one of the most hostile and dangerous city in the world at that time. Many were also on their second and third 12-15 month deployment. Even still, a single four-month deployment to Baghdad turned out to be a life-changing experience for me.
When I walked into the base Chapel that first Sunday, I was jetlagged and exhausted. I had worked the 12-hr night shift and had to stay awake an extra three hours to make it to Mass at 11AM. But despite my body screaming for sleep, I wasn’t going to miss it. Being in a warzone away from family and friends had only increased my reliance on God and apparently I wasn’t the only one. The chapel back home was never full, but in Iraq it was packed.
Instead of my Sunday best, I was wearing my uniform and combat boots. And rather than carrying a purse, I had a 9-mil pistol on my hip. I didn’t know a single person, so I quickly took a seat and glanced at the strangers sitting around me. My mind raced with questions. How long had they been here? Did they have spouses or children back home? Had they lost loved ones in this war? Would any of them be killed in the line of duty? It occurred to me that I was sitting among the bravest and most selfless men and women in our country. Silently, I bowed my head, praying God would protect and bring us all home safely.
There was no choir, but after communion the Chaplain played a song on the portable CD player called “We are one body.” I vaguely remembered hearing the song before but the words had new meaning: “We are one body, one body in Christ and we do not stand alone.”
I was supposed to be this tough, military officer but an unexpected lump formed in my throat. In a matter of seconds, tears burned my eyes and before I knew it, they began to stream down my face. As I listened to those words, I realized that the people sitting around me were not strangers. Maybe I didn’t know them personally, but they were my brothers and sisters in Christ. And I knew that in order to make it through this deployment I needed to support them, and they needed to support me.
I didn’t know how or what that looked like, but I sensed God was calling me to do something. Over the next week, I thought about practical ways I could make a difference and felt led to do two things – help start a church choir and lead a Bible study. I did both. With the help of some volunteer musicians and vocalists, we formed a choir and were pretty decent. Next, I started facilitating a six-week small group called “Catholics Seeking Christ.” What I did wasn’t anything remarkable, but right before I redeployed back to Virginia, I received an email from a Marine Lieutenant Colonel that had participated in the small group. He thanked me for leading the program and went on to say how much he learned and gained from the experience. “You helped facilitate a relationship with me and the ‘Big Guy’ and it changed my life,” he wrote. I stopped and read that sentence again. I knew it wasn’t me but God working through me that had transformed this man’s life. Even still, I felt something burn inside my heart, a passion for sharing the light of Christ with others – especially those in the military.
Less than a year later, I felt God calling me out of the military to become a full-time missionary for a nonprofit providing spiritual support and resources for troops and families. I separated from the Air Force six months later and for the next four years served as the Director of Strategic Communication for Military Ministry – a division of CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).
4word: Was it difficult to be a Christian in the military?
Rachel: There are a lot of Christians in the military, though these days there is some fear and reticence in speaking openly about one’s faith. Unfortunately, there are individuals and organizations that fight vehemently to limit any religious expression within the military, threatening the careers of service members, especially high-ranking ones, who do anything in the name of God while in uniform, even praying at their own promotion ceremonies.
So, that was always a concern. But I’ve learned that living out my faith doesn’t mean I have to go preaching the Gospel or talking about Jesus directly. These days I do that regularly, but when in the Air Force, I tried to let Christ’s light shine through me first and foremost. I served my troops, took an interest in their lives and tried to embody peace, confidence, compassion and joy, even in the midst of challenging situations. On countless occasions I was asked about my positive attitude or my coworkers would come to me for advice about something. It was in those circumstances that I was afforded an opportunity to open up and share my own experiences, my faith and my reason for hope.
4word: There have been many situations in your life where God has nudged you to “be out front.” How should we respond when we feel pushed like that?
Rachel: Get out of the boat! Seriously. If God is calling you to do something, even if it seems crazy as walking on water, He is the God of the impossible and you should step out on faith. That doesn’t mean that the waves won’t crash around you, the wind won’t blow or there won’t be terrifying moments where you think you might drown. That will likely happen. But based on my own life experiences: getting out of the military to become a missionary in the midst of the stock market crash, starting my own business on the heels of my marriage crumbling and not having any income, taking a year off to travel the globe and then moving to Dallas on faith a few months ago with no job and only a dream of living out my passion to be a speaker and visionary world changer,” let me just say – God provides! And getting out of the boat is the only way we get to experience the thrill of walking on water…and it’s so worth it!
I’ve learned that sometimes you have to say yes to God and take the first step not knowing where it will lead. Like right now, I’m finalizing edits on the book I wrote, “Hope: Choosing to Dance Through the Storms of Life.” I don’t have a publisher lined up yet, but I know this book is inspired by God and that it’s time to publish. Where it will lead and how it will come together is not clear, but I can’t wait to find out and share this message of hope with the world!
How do you live out your faith? Is your faith something your workplace accepts, or do you feel it would put your office reputation and experience in jeopardy? Learn from Rachel’s example and find a way to stay true to what God has called you to do: be a light for Him, no matter where you are.
RACHEL SHERBURNE is the founder of Choosing to Hope and an accomplished speaker, writer, seminar leader and coach whose life mission is to help others discover hope in their own.
As a young girl, Rachel always dreamed of the fairytale life – hoping that having beauty, success and significance, an incredible romance, and wedded bliss would make all of her dreams come true. A former Air Force officer turned full-time missionary, Rachel thought she “had it all” but when she faced an unexpected “storm” in her life in 2011, she soon realized that all the things she had previously hoped for were not enough to see her through the darkest of days or give her hope – which is what she desperately needed.
With God’s help, Rachel discovered the five principles to live a life of true hope no matter the circumstances and she has helped countless others do the same. Today, she combines her personal and professional life experience and Master’s Degree in Organization Leadership, to coach individual clients, work with nonprofits and multimillion dollar companies and speak to audiences around the globe.