I love mission trips. I believe it is a great way to help teens see that there is a bigger world out there that needs our love, compassion, grace and justice. It is so easy for middle class American teens (and adults) to not see beyond their little suburban bubble. Mission trips help to expand their focus and see their place in the world. Now understand that I did not say that mission trips are about “us” going out to help “them” who need us to swoop in and change their lives for the better. That is a poor way of looking at trips of this sort. We are not the “saviors” trying to save the “lost”. The more I do mission trips I have discovered that God is already working everywhere around the world AND He is still working on me and my teens. So the goal of a mission trip is to connect with what God is ALREADY doing in the life of a community and join in the experience. A good mission trip is a spiritual symbiotic relationship where we learn from each other as we serve together with the community.
For quite a while now I have based my model of missions on Jesus’ words quoted in Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus was speaking these words as he was in Jerusalem. Our mission begins in our “Jerusalem”. That would be representative of our own communities, our schools, our places of work and our neighborhoods.
Next Jesus emphasizes Judea and Samaria. These represent communities outside of our primary location. Being that Jesus also threw in Samaria too would also suggest that we need to go into those places that may make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable.
Lastly, Jesus mentions the ends of the earth. This is a command for Christ-followers to have a global perspective. We begin in our community, branch out to other areas near and far within our own country and we expand to have an international focus when it comes to missions.
With that said, I believe that we had one of the best Summer’s when it comes to mission trips. We took the Junior High teens to a mission on the outskirts of Cleveland, OH called the Nehemiah Mission. This is the fourth time I have partnered with this organization. The Nehemiah Mission used to be a United Methodist Church that was dying. They decided to convert the church into a mission which now runs year-round mission opportunities for all types of groups. Our teens had a lot of different experiences as they came along side of people and ministries that needed volunteers. We were able to serve at a women’s shelter called Laura’s Home, we did some urban gardening helping a neighborhood that was in a food desert, we help a variety of residents who needed some assistance with their homes and we helped with a city park project. What I love about our Junior Higher’s is that they don’t just see these as projects that they need to accomplish but they see it also as an opportunity to develop a relationship with someone and be a blessing to them through work and communication.
The story that really impacted me was that on the first day of the mission project we were told that a group of us would be needed at the women’s shelter called “Laura’s Home”. This rang a bell in my head as this mission sounded familiar to me. I began to remember my early days in youth ministry at my first church we did a project for Cleveland’s City Mission where they asked us to go to this abandoned building and help gut it out. Through the process we learned that this building was going to be renovated to become a shelter for women and children in need. One of those teenagers that was in my first youth group is Jaime. Jaime was one of my favorite teens I ever had the privilege of being one of her pastor’s. If I remember correctly, she was a part of that group that helped to gut the building. As Jaime grew up and went off to college she eventually came back to the Cleveland area and became not only a youth pastor but also an employee of Laura’s Home. As these memories started flooding back to me I began to get excited. I wondered if possibly Jaime was still working there.
As I was connecting all these dots in my head I asked out loud to our Nehemiah Mission leaders who were getting ready to take us to our sites for the day if they knew if Jaime still worked at Laura’s Home. One of the leaders, Michael, seemed to perk up and responded excitedly that not only does Jaime still work there but she was his youth pastor who had a significant impact on his life. Well with that, I excitedly told him that I was Jaime’s youth pastor! Michael’s mind was blown as he looked at me and said, “That would make you my spiritual grandfather!” We embraced and had one of those goose-bump Holy Spirit moments where we realized how I had an indirect impact on this young mans’ life because of a teenager I had the honor of discipling back in the late ’90’s. This meant a lot to me in that I left that church in not the best circumstances. I have often struggled with why God had me go through those negative experiences and whether or not I even made an impact. This encounter at the Nehemiah Mission felt like God smiling down on me and letting me know that there was a lot of good that came from that time in my life.
I then texted Jaime to see if she would be at Laura’s Home at all during the week and unfortunately she was just about to head out of town. But we promised each other that we would definitely get our families together sometime this Summer. So I am looking forward to that.
Then there was the Senor High trip to Puerto Rico with Praying Pelican Missions. Originally we were supposed to go to Cuba, but then Hurricane Maria happened. As the politics in our country had a major shift, many parents were uneasy with sending their teens to Cuba anyhow. Whenever a natural disaster happens I believe that is an open call for the churches to respond. Besides, I was disgusted with how our government was responding to Puerto Rico after the hurricane and as a result I felt even more emboldened that we need to go and help however we can.
The thing that I really like about Praying Pelican Missions is that they tether us to a local church and then we do whatever we can to help that church and it’s surrounding community. We had the opportunity to help rebuild a roof over the patio of a neighbor who lost his roof to the hurricane. Some of our girls helped with a Lady’s Bible study at the church. We helped remove some trees that were down. We helped a coffee farmer who lost everything to the hurricane. He had a million dollar business with many employees all lost to the hurricane. He struggled with whether he should even attempt to rebuild. But then people from the community and the churches, including groups like us from mission organizations started to come out and help him rebuild. Much of what we did was to get into the destroyed greenhouses and tear them apart clearing out the land for future projects. Every day we were there the owner was in tears because we were there to help him. He gave many of the adults a tour around his farm as we were able to build a relationship with him. I went to the coffee farm on the last work day of the week. At the end of our time there the owner asked if we could pray for him. It was a great moment as we came along side of him and prayed for him, his family and his business.
Another big event happened as one of my teenager’s announced in a conversation that she has never been baptized. Now this is unusual in my church context in that most of the teens were baptized as babies and then confirmed their baptism by going through Confirmation when they were in 7th grade. But this particular teenager, Atalie, got involved in our youth group during her 8th grade year. She asked me if she could be baptized on the mission trip on the day that we would go to the ocean. I usually have strong reservations about baptizing teens apart form their families. I believe that this is a significant event in the live of a baby, teen or adult in which their biological family and church family should come along side of them and be witnesses to their commitment to be baptized into the church. So, I expressed this concern to Atalie and told her that in order to move forward with this we would need her parent’s blessing. Well with that, she immediately contacted her parents and they sent a video that expressed their blessing on this step in her spiritual life. So on the day that we went to the beach, I had the honor of baptizing Atalie. What was unique about this was that my youth group is used to seeing babies baptized through sprinkling and making the sign of the cross on their forehead. This was an opportunity to explain baptism by immersion and the symbolism that comes with this sacred sacrament. I felt very blessed to be a part of this step in Atalie’s spiritual development. I suspect that this is only the beginning for Atalie as she continues to grow in her spiritual life.
With all that said, I can’t stop loving youth ministry and the teens that God has entrusted to me. As I get to serve them, they have no idea how much of an impact they have on me. There are may aspect of ministry that can be discouraging but serving teens has always energized me and help keep my faith alive and active. I am blessed to be their youth pastor. What a great Summer!