By Ron Leir
It’s been one heck of a journey.
She’s originally from Oklahoma. He was born in the Congo and raised in Marseilles, France. They met in Atlanta, got married in Houston and now – after a two-year sojourn in Pittsburgh – they’re together in Kearny.
They are Sherry and Maurice Moukouangala, the new Corps officers/ pastors for The Salvation Army Kearny Corps Worship and Community Center, 443 Chestnut St.
“We love Kearny,” said Sherry, “with all the different cultures.” And, Maurice added, “it’s very family oriented.” The couple can relate: They have two young children, Elise, 4, and William 2.
“People here have been very welcoming and gracious,” Maurice said.
The Moukouangalas reported for duty July 3, taking over for S.A. Majors Alberto and Brenda Suarez, who were reassigned to Allentown, Pa., after a four-year stay in Kearny.
Sherry, 42, is a captain in the Corps, and Maurice, 44, a lieutenant.
Before his ordination as pastor/officer, Maurice – a longtime brass player – was the Divisional Music Director for The Salvation Army Western Pennsylvania Division in Pittsburgh.
Maurice described himself as “third generation” Salvation Army loyalists. “My grandparents were pastors, as were my parents, both in the Congo, and now I am, as well.”
But he came belatedly to his calling. More about that a bit later.
First, there is Capt. Sherry’s story: Her first exposure to the S.A. came at age 11. “My mother was a single parent raising three girls in Bartlesville, Okla., [longtime home to Phillips Petroleum] and we got assistance from the Salvation Army,” she said.
“It was during the summer and the woman [from the S.A. thrift store] helping us pick out fall clothing had a daughter who went to the same school as I did – we were both in the sixth grade – and we became good friends.”
After high school graduation, Sherry said she “did many jobs but they brought no joy.” The S.A. did, however, and in 2003 she went to the S.A. College for Officer Training in Atlanta to begin a two-year training program.
It was at the college that the future couple’s paths crossed for the first time.
However, Maurice’s path to the S.A. was by no means as straight-forward as Sherry’s.
“Being a Salvation Army officer is a calling. You have to be a friend to those with no friends,” he explained. And, although he was certainly involved with S.A. activities through his family, he admits he was “not ready” to fully embrace it as his life’s work.
“I wanted to experience the world,” he said. “I moved to England to learn English. I was living at Oxford. I started with a job in London teaching and traveling around Europe. The money and benefits were good but something inside me was feeling guilty. Deep in my heart, I was feeling something was missing.”
So, in 2001, he applied to become an S.A. pastor/officer trainee and, as part of that mission, he traveled to the U.S. to work in a S.A. summer camp in the Garden State, in Pittstown.
However, still feeling the tug of secular comforts, Maurice traveled to Raleigh, N.C., to take a job with the French Consulate teaching French at private schools.
“But then I thought I had to get more serious about what I would be doing with my life,” he said, and he took a Future Salvation Army Officers Fellowship in Atlanta in 2003. During an orientation weekend, Maurice met Sherry and “fell in love.”
“We kept in touch for a year, we broke up, and I moved back to England and got my teaching job again,” he recalled.
In 2005, however, Maurice persuaded Sherry to fly to London to meet him. From there, they went to France where Maurice introduced her to his family. The following year, they were engaged.
Then it was back to the U.S. where Maurice worked as a S.A. trainee in Texas while Sherry got an assignment as an S.A. officer in South Carolina. Maurice asked his superiors if they could arrange to transfer Sherry to a job in the Lone Star State and they did.
But, given the size of Texas, the couple were still separated by a commute of more than three hours.
Then, in 2008, Maurice broke both legs in a car crash and spent a month recuperating in an intensive care unit. That’s when the couple decided to tie the knot. The ceremony was held in a Houston rehabilitation center, Maurice said. “For a year, I was in a wheelchair.”
Then Sherry got pregnant, ultimately taking a leave from the Army, while Maurice held two teaching jobs. But after landing a third job as music director for the S.A.’s Western District in Pittsburgh – he bade farewell to the classroom and the couple set up shop in Pennsylvania for the next two years.
At that point, Maurice took the big step, enrolling in the Army’s officer training college in Suffern, N.Y., and Sherry was accepted as a member of the faculty.
Now, two years later, the couple have their first assignment as pastors/officers together in Kearny.
“We look forward to being of service to the community,” Maurice said. “We are happy to be here and ready to help with all aspects of the local organization, from youth and community programs to pastoral care.”
As part of its mission of service to all, the Kearny Corps is providing weekly English as a Second Language classes for 45 adults and children; a “Senior Surfing” Internet computer class equipped with five terminals; staffing an emergency food pantry servicing some 30 families; and offering Sunday School for 25 youngsters and worship services for 55 attendees.
For the fall, Maurice said he’s exploring the possibility of starting a brass band, with which the Army has traditionally been associated. “I play brass instruments and a brass band for me is like a second life. So, I’d like to start a brass band here. We have some instruments – tubas, cornets, horns – so we’ll see what the Lord has in store for us.”
In the meantime, Maurice said the couple will be meeting with various community representatives to introduce themselves and to deepen their understanding of the needs of the community.