By Katie Eubanks
Rev. Frank Porter
From country preacher to desert chaplain
While Frank Porter was deployed in Kuwait last year as a chaplain, he never felt like his life was in immediate danger.
Of course, you need faith to get through any kind of military deployment. But Frank and his wife, Emily, are no strangers to situations requiring a little faith: Their whole relationship started that way.
In January 2004, Frank was a youth pastor and Emily was a youth intern, both at churches in the Reservoir area. They had mutual friends, and some parents of the kids in Frank’s youth group said, “Hey, you should meet Emily.”
Frank was open to the idea but didn’t expect anything to come of it — “because people were always like, ‘You need to meet so and so,’ and they never produced so and so,” he says.
Frank’s youth group went on a retreat, and some of Emily’s students also attended. A couple days after the group returned, “This parent from her church drove up in the parking lot holding a piece of paper going, ‘I got her number, I got her number!’”
So he called, and they set up a date. In the meantime, however, they had never met in person. And this was before Facebook or smartphones, so they had no easy way of finding out what the other person looked like.
“And we were getting descriptions of each other from middle-school kids,” Emily says.
“I was told that Emily was short, with big hair,” Frank says.
“And she is,” Emily adds, laughing.
However, Frank says Emily looked “way better” than what he imagined.
Fourteen years and two sons later, the Porters live at the parsonage at Pleasant Grove Congregational Methodist Church in Carthage, where Frank is a self-described “country preacher.” Emily works at the Apple Annie’s stores, which her mother owns, in metro Jackson.
When asked what distinguishes Congregational Methodists, Frank jokes, “We like to swing from the rafters … light things on fire …”
In actuality, the denomination is Wesleyan in its biblical view of scripture, and sort of Southern Baptist in its autonomous church life. Every congregation picks its own pastor, and “I will be (at this church) until the Lord leads us to a different place,” he says.
In his DNA
In 2010, before he started pastoring Pleasant Grove, Frank joined the Mississippi Army National Guard. He was 37.
“Military service is just kind of in my family’s DNA,” he says. “My dad served in the Air Force during Vietnam. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, served on an aircraft carrier in World War II. I have an uncle that retired from the Army as a helicopter pilot.
“I always wanted to serve in the military and just didn’t join up any earlier until I felt the call to do so.” Emily knew he always wanted to serve, “so it wasn’t a complete shock that he joined,” she says. He served for three years, until 2013 (meanwhile taking the Pleasant Grove pastorate in 2012), and then rejoined the Guard as a chaplain in 2017. He was immediately assigned to the 1st Squadron, 98th Cavalry Regiment out of Amory, which contained somewhere around 400 soldiers, he says — about 10 times the weekly attendance at his church.
And the unit was preparing to go to Camp Buehring in Kuwait. “When he left, I was devastated,” says son Caden, 13, in a FaceTime interview with his dad and brother Grayson, 11.
Of course, the boys missed their dad — not to mention his making pancakes on Saturday mornings — but they also helped their mom with some of Frank’s household duties, like taking out the trash and taking care of the pets.
(When asked if they enjoyed these chores, Grayson promptly replies, “No,” with a deadpan stare.)
Emily, however, was pleasantly surprised at her boys’ willingness to step up.
She was also grateful that Frank was deployed “in 2018 and not, you know, 1918. Via Wi-Fi I could text, you know, and I pretty much almost every day had some form of contact with him, even if it wasn’t talking to him.”
Camp Buehring wasn’t home, but Frank had “a nice place to stay,” he says, complete with a gym, a movie theater and plenty to eat (including midnight chow, which he slept through).
He led a Bible study for his squadron. Attendance was “hit or miss,” he says.
Then a female chaplain asked if he’d ever thought about starting a Bible study for all men at Camp Buehring. Frank didn’t want the added responsibility. “But she was very persistent,” he says.
Finally, he said if she could guarantee him some attendees, he’d lead the study. Pretty soon she said she had six men who wanted to attend.
And that’s about how many attended — the first time. The second time, there were 19. After that, “We never had single digits again,” Frank says. “And we had men of all ages and all different ranks that came to this Bible study. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the deployment.
“I had to tell (the other chaplain) she was right,” Frank says. “She might’ve gone back to her office and done a victory dance, but she didn’t do it in front of me.”
As a chaplain, Frank is able to speak freely during chapel services as God leads, and is not required to “conduct or hold services that are outside of my beliefs,” he says.
“That being said, there are some times and circumstances where I need to be a little more aware of the — the surroundings or aware of who is in attendance to try to be … a little more generic.”
Meanwhile, Emily was experiencing her own challenges and rewards at home.
“It was hard not having the person you’re used to talking to and seeing every day, your partner,” she says. “Normally after we’re done eating, the boys will go off and we’ll sit at the table and talk.
However, “it kind of brings you into a closer relationship with God because that’s what you have and that’s who you have, and that’s constant. (And it can be nice) just having time to kind of learn about yourself, too.”
Pleasant Grove members helped a lot, as did Emily’s dad, who would watch the boys while she traveled to market for Apple Annie’s.
“I think he was especially glad to see Frank come home,” she says.
“He’s never loved me more,” Frank adds. “I cemented my status as favorite son-in-law.” (He’s also the only son-in-law.)
Frank made sure Emily knew the exact date of his return home. There was no surprise husband-wife reunion.
“In fact, when I found out (we) were going to be deployed, one of her first comments to me was, ‘Do not plan some kind of surprise,’” he recalls.
However, that didn’t stop them from surprising the boys.
“I like to be behind the surprise,” Emily says. “(There) may be some control issues there.”
Frank arrived back in Mississippi in February, a month or two before Caden and Grayson expected. The boys’ school, Hartfield Academy, conspired with the family to plan the surprise around a baseball game. Caden was already scheduled to sing the national anthem at the game, so all they had to do was get Grayson onto the field — he would be the honorary team captain.
Grayson walked out onto the field, met the umpires and representatives of the other team and exchanged lineups. Caden came out to sing.
“My music teacher was walking me out to the baseball field and she was encouraging me, like, ‘You can do this,’” Caden says. “It was my first time doing the national anthem, but not my first time singing in front of a crowd.”
After the song, their daddy walked out to meet them. “There was not a dry eye in the house,” Emily says.
Then Frank surprised Pleasant Grove Congregational Methodist, whose members hadn’t heard about his homecoming.
As of July, Frank is back on a regular monthly drill schedule. That means he’ll hold worship services every month, plus continue to advise the unit commander on morale issues and serve as the “spiritual subject matter expert” for his unit. And he’ll continue to be available for soldiers, not just for spiritual matters, but any practical help or resources they might need.
The boys are happy to have their dad back, though they have retained some of the chores they were doing while he was gone.
And, they’re enjoying the new family member they acquired during the deployment: Scout, “the ‘you left me here with these children’ deployment dog,” Frank says.
Looking back on his time overseas, Frank describes it as a “very vivid reminder that the plan that God has for us is immeasurably better than (our own).
“That was one of the things I said (to our church): ‘I know this was not in our plan, but this was God’s plan, so it’s got to be better.’”