After starting the Episcopal Church's ordination process, the Rev. T.J. Freeman quickly found it so frightening he thought it would be safer to serve in the U.S. Army, so he enlisted.
After a tour of duty as a combat soldier in Iraq, Freeman said he returned home suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and feeling broken, dirty and sinful. He was surprised by the response of God, the church and his community.
"This flawed human being is exactly who we need," he recalls learning. "God can work with that."
That is one of the lessons Freeman, 36, carries with him into his ministry as the new rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Fort Wayne.
He began work at the church by leading worship this past Sunday. He still is unpacking, deciding where to hang artwork in his office and trying to find the light switches in the building. But he is excited about the opportunities at Trinity and in Fort Wayne.
HEARING THE CALL
Born and raised in the small town of Oxford, northwest of Lafayette, Freeman went on to attend Hanover College near Madison, graduating in spring 2003.
During that summer, he was working as a counselor for The Ulster Project when he felt the call to ministry. The Ulster Project brings Catholic and Protestant teens from Northern Ireland to the United States so they can get to know each other and build cooperation rather than animosity, Freeman said.
He started the ordination process with the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, but quickly became so scared of going through it he decided to join the Army.
Trained as a cavalry scout, he served with the 4th Infantry Division from 2005 to 2006 as a reconnaissance team leader with a unit in charge of maintaining safety on Route Irish on the west side of Baghdad. The route, which gained a reputation as the most dangerous road on Earth, ran about 7 miles from the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad to the Baghdad International Airport and U.S. military headquarters in Iraq.
Freeman and his fellow soldiers went on patrols, looked for and removed Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and conducted raids looking for targeted individuals, he said. He took part in all of the things U.S. ground soldiers are asked to do in a war, he added.
When he returned home after his tour in Iraq, "I was in an awful place," he recalled.
Along with PTSD and processing all he had been through, "there was this disconnect between me the soldier and the me that God was calling to ministry," he said. The first time he attended church, he could only stand to stay for about 10 minutes of the service before sneaking out the back door. By the fourth or fifth week home, he stopped attending church completely, he said.
A TURNING POINT
Not comfortable talking about his situation with the parish priest there, he finally decided to call the Episcopal priest where he attended worship while in college.
"We talked for two and a half hours, and that ended up turning into a confession," he said.
With his sins forgiven and mind cleared, he slept for 10 hours that night — more than he had slept in the previous few days combined, he added.
"There is nothing we can do that separates us from the love of God," he said.
He was ready to study for the ministry, except he still owed the Army about two and a half years of service.
Freeman spent a large chunk of his remaining Army duty as an operations sergeant from 2008 to 2009 with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. He helped plan and coordinate missions from an operations center, including using real-time data and reports from the field to guide units in battles and to call in airstrikes.
PURSUING HIS CALLING
Three weeks after completing his Army service in fall 2009, he resumed the ordination process through the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. He attended Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and was ordained an Episcopal priest in August 2014.
His first calling in the ministry was as an associate rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He wanted to serve in a parish where he could learn from priests with a lot of experience, and he found it there.
"One of the big things I needed to learn there," he said, "was realizing you can have all of the good ideas in the world and read all of the books, but if you don't know and love your people, you are not going to be able to be an effective priest."
That's why he plans to get to know his congregation and the Fort Wayne community before suggesting new ideas or programs, he said. But he is looking ahead.
Freeman, who is married and has a daughter, 4, and son, 11 months, believes the congregation must tap into the missionary spirit that inspired Trinity's founding nearly 160 years ago. The congregation also must decide how it will engage with the world around it — where do the passions and skills of Trinity members intersect with the needs of the Fort Wayne community.
They don't have to sell people anything, he said, but they do need to be out in the community sharing the story of God's love in the world.
"We can't just be a social club that does good work," he added.
Worship services are at 7:30 and 10 a.m. Sundays at Trinity Episcopal Church, 611 W. Berry St.
For information, call 423-1693 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays or go to www.trinityfw.org.