COVINGTON - Newton County natives Billie and Chris Powell are in the army now. Not the U.S. Army. They've answered a higher calling.
The Powells recently graduated from the Salvation Army College for Officer Training in Atlanta. They are now certified Salvation Army officers with the rank of lieutenant. They're also ordained ministers and their first assignment is serving at the Salvation Army Corps in LaGrange.
The Powells, so far as school officials know, are the first residents of Covington to graduate from the college, one of four U.S. schools operated by the Salvation Army.
Students typically come there from communities where Salvation Army churches, known as corps, are located, and the closest corps to Covington are in Lawrenceville and Jonesboro.
"It's a very unique situation. We've been told as far as memory, we're the first to come out of Covington," Billie Powell said.
The couple has a long history of service with the Salvation Army. Billie Powell was director of social services at the Covington branch for 12 years, during which time, Chris was "her greatest volunteer."
But both wanted to do more.
"We really felt God had called us into the ministry and we were being led into the ministry," Billie Powell said.
So they enrolled in the two-year college, where they studied the Bible, along with ethics, evangelism, church history, Christian education, psychology, counseling, social work, accounting, business management, communications and physical education, among other subjects.
After graduation, they accepted the post in LaGrange, and reported to duty June 25, the same day they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
In addition to presiding over the Salvation Army Corps, the two oversee the LaGrange Army's thrift store and all of its outreach activities. They also are on standby to be called to assist in the wake of a natural disaster or tragedy. In these instances, they will act as liaisons between emergency workers and the community, and as chaplains for victims and their families.
"It gives us the opportunity to spread the Gospel and reach those in the community we may not have had the opportunity to reach before. When you see the community come together for total strangers, you're just in awe," Billie Powell said.
She should know, having already been called to help at the Pentagon after 9/11 and after such disasters as Hurricanes Katrina and Charlie.
Most recently, as part of their college course work, the couple went on a nine-day mission trip to Guyana, one of South America's poorest countries.
"It's compassion in action ... they see a need and meet that need at the place where it's at," she said of the Army's mission.
That mission began in 1852, when a man named William Booth began his ministry in the streets of London, preaching to the poor, the homeless and the outcasts of society. His approach led to disagreement with church leaders in London. As they continued their crusade, Booth's followers became known as Salvationists, and then the Salvation Army.
They were met with opposition by a group known as the Skeleton Army, who disrupted Salvation Army meetings and gatherings by throwing of rocks, rats and tar, and physically assaulted members. These efforts were usually led by those who were losing business due to the Army's opposition to alcohol and targeting the frequenters of saloons and public houses.
The Salvation Army's reputation changed after it began disaster relief efforts after the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Today, the Army has nearly 9,000 operations centers and has assisted more than 31 million people in the United States alone.
But many people don't realize the organization's Christian origins, Chris Powell said.
"We're not just Christmas kettles. That's what a lot of people think of, and disaster (relief). We are part of the Christian church and we are a church," he said.
In fact, the Salvation Army has churches in 115 countries.
For now, the Powells believe they are where they are supposed to be, but they are willing to move wherever Salvation Army leaders, and God, calls them, they said, adding that officers are typically transferred every two to five years.
To learn more about the Salvation Army, visit www.salvationarmyusa.org.