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SASRA ‘peace2020’ initiative: Responding to conscription

February 2020 | by Bill Newton

BOX 2015 St Athan Airmens Rest opening 25.06.1940 (SOURCE SASRA)
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On 8 May this year, Britain will commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day – the end of the Second World War in Europe.  SASRA (Soldiers’ & Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association) is marking this anniversary with the ‘peace2020’ initiative.

This includes: a daily devotional (‘40 Days to Peace’); a pack to help churches organise outreach events linked to VE Day; and publication of ‘SASRA in the Second World War’ which contains eye-witness accounts of SASRA’s work.

Details are available at peace2020.org.uk. Over the next three months Evangelical Times is publishing excerpts from ‘SASRA in the Second World War’ illustrating different aspects of the work.

In 1945, SASRA’s Chairman looked back at the challenges they had faced:

‘Before the war, when the so called “Militia” was called up, and hundreds of thousands of young men became liable for military training, every endeavour was made through the various churches to let these men know of the Association and how it could help them in their new and unaccustomed life. It was not long before war was declared and general conscription enforced: a state of affairs which threw immense responsibilities, accompanied with great opportunities, upon the Association.

‘The need for many more [Scripture] Readers1 was instantaneous, and it may be stated here that during the past seven years or so, not a single suitable candidate has been refused, and by efforts of our loyal and devoted supporters every financial need has been met. It soon became obvious that the methods which were so successful in the last war, were not suitable for this one. Then the erection of stationary huts in fixed camps met a great need and was blessed greatly. During this war, owing to the constant changes in the location of the troops, this method had but a limited usefulness.

‘To meet the changed conditions of this war it was decided to open at all suitable centres, Rest Rooms in the charge of Readers and their wives or of Lady workers, where the spiritual work of the Association could be carried on.

‘With the conscription of women a new problem arose, for the need to present the Gospel to the young women of our land is alas as necessary and urgent as it is to the men. To meet this pressing need Lady Scripture Readers were enrolled, for service among the ATS and WAAF.’

The conscripts faced many challenges: ‘Service life is so entirely different from civilian life, and the newcomer to the Services is very much like an untried vessel suddenly launched upon a rough and unknown sea. Fresh from the stabilising influence of a good home, many a youth has experienced a new sense of “freedom” when he has joined one of the Services. At last – he feels – he is a man, doing a man’s job; and too often he aspires to be “as big as the other fellow”, no matter how spiritually and morally small that “other fellow” may be. With older types there is frequently a sense of frustration and almost of hopelessness. Separated from their homes and loved ones, unable to pursue the interests and occupations which formed so great a part of their lives, such types tend to drift.’

The Huts and Rest Rooms were used for fellowship and evangelism: ‘What wonder such a place is hailed as a Home from Home by many a grateful lad who finds here not only creature comforts but a kindly Christian spirit vividly in contrast with the barrack room to which he will return. And the tender touch of “evening prayers” with the loving Gospel message does not fail to give our Rest Rooms a distinctive character of their own which is their chief value. Overheard in the dark outside in the street, a soldier lad addresses a girl who is importuning him to spend the evening with her. “No. I tell you I’m not coming out with you. I’m going in here to learn how to get my sins forgiven.” And in he came.

‘Hundreds of contacts are being made by our Scripture Readers every week within these Rest Rooms, and there have been many conversions. Not all are traceable at the time. After a meeting, a Corporal sought the way of salvation. He had lost both parents a few days before in a London air raid, “and now I’m all alone in the world”, he told me. After leading him to Christ, I said, “You must believe that He has received you in accordance with His promise.” “I know He has,” he replied with a happy smile, and went away no longer “alone in the world”.

‘A private from Leicester spoke of her religious upbringing, in consequence of which she knew little about the fundamental truths of Christianity until in a Rest Room of the Association she had heard the Gospel and learned that Jesus Christ was the Rock to Whom she must look for salvation. Life in the Army was hard at times, but she could rejoice in it for there she had come to know the Lord.’

The work of SASRA with military trainees continues today with ASR Lee McDade at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick and ASR Lee Phillipson at the Army Training Regiment in Winchester. More information can be found on the SASRA website, sasra.org.uk.

Footnote

  1. Scripture Readers wear a uniform and are normally old soldiers or airmen. They work with the authority of the Army Council and Air Ministry, and the goodwill of the Chaplains’ Departments. During the war, in addition to ex-Servicemen, missionaries unable to return to their stations and other experienced Evangelists were accepted as Scripture Readers.

Bill Newton is editor of ‘SASRA in the Second World War’ and a volunteer with Mission Assist.