Gresham's Grant McAllister found faith through service
Grant McAllister found a higher calling while serving in the military.
The Air Force lieutenant, who hailed from Gresham, was stationed with his young family at Yokota Air Base in Japan. He was only a few years removed from college and still discovering himself.
“I wasn’t doing anything too bad, but I was making some bad decisions,” McAllister said. “A few too many beers.”
One of the men he served alongside was an elder at a Mission Baptist Church near the base. After a few conversations, stoked by a desire to course-correct a path in life that was slightly deviating, he decided to attend.
Faith wasn’t a foreign concept to McAllister since he had grown up a Methodist. However, he had “wandered away from it for a couple of years.”
“I first thought the kids needed to start going to church,” McAllister said. “And doggone it, the Lord got a hold of me.”
That hold never loosened, as McAllister would spend nearly two decades of military service as a chaplain, dedicated to sharing his faith, uplifting soldiers of all beliefs, and helping others who may similarly find themselves wandering from their best path.
“I loved the service. It was a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world,” he said. “It is an amazing environment filled with camaraderie. You really miss it when you are gone — I still think about it all the time.”
To follow that new passion, McAllister had to leave active service temporarily. He resigned his commission in 1972 as the Vietnam War wound down so he could attend the Dallas Theological Center. He graduated in 1976 and joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain, sponsored by the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, where he served for 18 years. He eventually retired in August 1994 as a lieutenant colonel and would continue his ministry in the civilian world.
“The Lord kept opening doors,” he said.
McAllister describes being an Army chaplain as a patchwork of duties. The faith component includes leading prayers, bible studies, and periodic preaching. There is also a lot of counseling, being somebody who youngsters, trained to bottle things up and thrust into difficult situations, can bounce their emotions off of — a cross between a social worker and minister.
“You are the person they turn to when there are issues among the soldiers,” McAllister said. “It is working with people, getting to know the men and women in your unit.”
“Probably the vast majority aren’t religious at all, but as a chaplain, you are there for them,” he added. “You help all soldiers. For a lot, asking for that help is not second nature to them.”
One night at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, that involved helping a Jewish soldier go to Temple. He and his wife drove that young man so he could worship.
“It was interesting to watch the ceremonies and be a part of that world,” McAllister said.
Finding his way
McAllister grew up in East Multnomah County, living on Powell Boulevard across from the Episcopal Church. His father, George McAllister, was a city attorney. McAllister graduated as part of Gresham High School’s Class of ’62.
“I have deep roots in Gresham,” he said.
Initially, he planned to follow in Dad’s footsteps and earn a law degree at Willamette University, though he admits his grades never quite caught up with that plan. He showed up at college a few years after a mandatory ROTC service was required for all young men, but he was still drawn to the program.
“One day out in the quad, they had all the groups on campus with booths set up,” McAllister said. “There were two Air Force captains talking with students. I had never thought about the military, about serving. But after a few minutes, I signed up for ROTC.”
“I should have joined the choir,” he added with a laugh.
His father, George, had served during World War II, though a bad back had kept him out of the combat zone.
With that experience in the ROTC, which included a tour down the coast with the rifle drill team and a $50 monthly stipend, McAllister was hooked. He graduated from Willamette in 1966 as a second lieutenant in the Air Force and went straight into active duty.
He went to flight officer training school at Chanute Air Force Base and then served at Luke Air Force Base, near Phoenix, Ariz., as a school commander to help train others on flying the F-100 and then F-400, with a focus on the weapon systems.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching,” McAllister said.
By this point, he had married his wife, Katy McCallister, whom he had met at Willamette — they are celebrating their 56th anniversary this year — and had two kids.
War and presidents
McAllister was stationed in Germany in 1989, just before the first Gulf War. His brigade was sent to Saudi Arabia, with the command staff remaining in Europe, including McAllister.
“I had 800 families I was with in Germany during a crazy time because those young soldiers were going to war,” he said. “We had a lot of young wives away from home for the first time with babies. They would rack up $300-400 phone bills just trying to stay in touch with people because no one knew when the soldiers would come back.”
It was holding hands, praying with people, and helping them through a difficult time.
“We didn’t know at the time what the war would be, and thankfully, our men didn’t see any combat action,” McAllister said. “When those planes came back, everyone was crying and screaming and shouting in joy. It was like a New Year’s Eve party times 10.”
His service took him and his family across the globe — seven years in Germany, three in Japan when he was still with the Air Force and a year in South Korea.
“That was an amazing year of ministry in Korea. We were in the middle of nowhere,” McAllister said. “Katy and the kids stayed in Salem, which was tough, but we made it through that.”
He was also stationed in North Carolina and San Francisco and finished his service at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
“Everyone said Fort Polk was the armpit of the army, but we loved it down there,” he said with a smile.
As a chaplain, McAllister provided services for President Jimmy Carter and his wife when they visited Camp David.
“They were held in a 50-person movie theater,” McAllister remembered. “I was so green, I’m sure the president was shaking his head. But they were so gracious, they put up with me, and I never got run out of town.”
Eventually, the family found its way back to Oregon. His youngest daughter, one of three “Army brats,” wanted to attend high school here. So they made their way back west, eventually settling in Wood Village. McAllister now teaches at Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring.
“Now my family is all here, including grandchildren,” McAllister said. “I just turned 80, but I keep busy.”