'Jonah moment' spurs new Fort Rucker youth pastor's journey
April 1, 2010
FORT RUCKER Ala. -- Eric Gillis calls it his "Jonah moment."
Little did he know the journey from that moment would lead him to the job as Fort Rucker's Club Beyond youth minister nearly 10 years later.
Gillis began serving as the post's youth director in late February, about one month after the sudden passing of the post's first youth director, Zane Biddle.
The moment that spurred the journey here began when he was 13.
Gillis grew up attending a small country church in Westville, Fla., which is about 55 miles from post. At 13, he felt God leading him to become a youth minister, but it was a "call" he didn't want to answer initially.
When he was 15, Gillis was involved in a serious automobile accident, and afterward, he knew it was God's way of refocusing his desires.
"I call it my 'Jonah' experience," he said, referring to the prophet whom a whale swallowed for three days after his refusal to preach to the people of Nineveh. "I was really trying to run, but God caught my attention."
At 16, Gillis started working with youth. As he approached his high school graduation, though, Gillis faced an important decision.
He was offered a basketball scholarship to a small Christian school in Florida, but an opportunity to join the Army presented itself. He accepted, joining in 2003 as a chaplain assistant.
In 2005, the Army stationed him here, where he worked as a funds clerk until his separation in 2007. While here, he worked with Biddle, who helped shape and mold his youth ministry approach.
"I became friends (with) him and his family," Gillis said, noting Biddle became a major asset when he started full-time youth ministry in Florida and Oklahoma after leaving the service.
In his initial youth ministry jobs, Biddle's advice helped him deal with issues parents presented. He battled traditional practices with one of Biddle's favorite statements, he added.
"One of the things he always said that stuck with me was, 'I'm not changing the message. I'm just changing the methods,'" Gillis said.
After serving at an Oklahoma church, Gillis returned to the Wiregrass area in August 2008 and stayed, making it easier to hire him for his current job. His arrival couldn't have come at a better time, according to Col. Stephen Cook, installation and garrison chaplain.
"Even though we have good volunteers, we needed a hire as quickly as possible. I don't think they would have floundered, but they needed that support," Cook said. "They needed that full-time leadership."
Gillis agreed, noting someone was needed to help mentor the club's teens in light of Biddle's sudden passing.
"It is kind of a miracle in itself. Even though we have great volunteers, none had been through (training on) how to counsel a grieving teen," he said.
Gillis said knowing Biddle has eased the transition between the two leaders.
"When a kid tells a story, (I) can laugh with them because (I) knew him," he said.
Some youth echoed that learning from and knowing Biddle helped with the leadership change.
"He knows how to work through things because of Zane," said Club Beyond member Korey Daniel.
Brydon Fox, daughter of Michael and Cheri Fox, provided another reason the timing of Gillis' arrival works well.
"I knew a lot of the kids were newer, so the timing was perfect to get used to the change," she said.
Even though Biddle mentored him, Gillis said his youth ministry approach varies somewhat from his predecessor, based on his own life-changing experiences with God.
"I'm a big summer camp guy because I was saved at a summer camp. Every summer, the youth are going to have an opportunity to do that," he said. "Zane was more mission-minded. I really want to be a great mentor so when kids leave, they leave here with all the tools (they need to succeed in life)."
Some believe Gillis' past experiences will help him succeed as Club Beyond youth minister.
"He is already ahead of the game. He knows Fort Rucker. He already knows the schools," Cook said.
"He's very outgoing. He's just one of those hand-in-glove fits. I'm excited to have him here."
"It's just one of those jobs that you're made for," Gillis said. "I've been deployed, so I know what that's like. There are still a lot of people who attend the chapel who remember me as a chaplain assistant, so we still have a lot of those bonds."
Even though he has known he would serve as a youth minister since his "Jonah" moment, Gillis said he never imagined his career path would lead him here again.
"I knew I would be in youth ministry, but I never imagined it would be on a military installation, and more specifically, Fort Rucker," he said. "I love coming to work every day."