When local people are called into international mission fields, even for a short time, they expect to do hard work. They expect the lives of those they help will be better off than before they arrived.
|Rudolph Ramclam's house in Belize, where Palm Harbor UMC mission members constructed a septic system. Ramclam has three special needs children.|
However, as mission workers from three Florida United Methodist churches discovered recently, the act of helping others had a profound effect on their own spiritual walks—no matter their age. They brought home mental snapshots of life-changing events.
One night during their trip, the youth group and supervisors from Palm Harbor United Methodist Church gathered with local villagers for evening worship, following a long, hard workday in the heat and humidity of Cuxlin Ha, Belize.
The 20-person group was about to learn something important from the people they had come to serve. They saw people with few material things offer themselves in soul-felt communion with God, including one woman who sang praises in a way none of the team had ever heard.
“She was making up the words as she went along,” said Lynn Stevens, assistant director for student ministry at Palm Harbor. “The people were praying, but what they were all really doing was crying out to God. It was incredible,” she said.
That moment is just one of many snapshots in the life-changing, 10-day journey in 2016. This trip has become an annual pilgrimage for youth at the 2,000-plus member church in Pinellas County for 14 years. They learned the joy of assisting those in great need, but the greater discovery was how those with seemingly little surrendered in faith and praise to God.
The visits began after a church member went to a ministry fair and heard that while volunteers were active in many parts of the Caribbean, no one was going to Belize. Over the years, these volunteers have helped build a medical and dentistry clinic, houses and other projects as needed.
Cuxlin Ha is a five-hour bus ride from Belize City, the nation’s capital. While the village has tourist attractions because of its proximity to Mayan ruins, the Palm Harbor group stayed in more Spartan accommodations. This task this trip was to install a septic tank for a family with three special needs children. Long hours of digging in the hard red clay and mixing concrete, then transporting it up a hill filled the days.
|Pouring concrete for the septic lid are Carl Rinderle, Palm Harbor's student ministry director, and Valeriano Paau, the Mayan work site leader.|
The work was transforming, however. They focused on what Stevens called “Yay God!”—looking for examples of God’s power, love and grace in everyday settings.
It was the fifth trip to Belize for 19-year-old Jenna Schreifer. For her, the long workdays and worship-filled evenings strengthened her own walk with God.
“On this trip, we got to be closer with a lot more different families than the ones we had met before,” she said. “It really helped me develop my faith in a way I hadn’t before. It was a lot easier to make connections to God because we were away from all distractions,” she said.
Costa Rica was the destination for a team from Roseland UMC in Roseland and Church by the Sea in Vero Beach. Seven team members travelled to San Isidro, some travelling on a team for the first time.
Marilyn Waldis, age 71, was a first-timer, leaving her home church in Roseland to spend a week in Central America.
“We were in worship one night…with some local people,” she said. “They were speaking in Spanish, and I don’t speak that language, so I didn’t understand them. But they were worshiping in such a way that enabled me to worship God in my own head. It was very personal and powerful,” she said.
Mission work is a key tenet of The United Methodist Church and a tradition for many churches that goes back years. This was the third consecutive trip to Costa Rica for Church by the Sea.
|Joel Pau, a local Mayan, helps build the septic system with Palm Harbor's mission team.|
In Costa Rica, team members have helped build parsonages, a mission center and a preschool. This year they helped build a covering for a walkway at the center and lengthened a sidewalk from the preschool.
Both the Belize and Costa Rica outreach projects have a common thread: Pastor Cliff Melvin.
He served at Palm Harbor when the Belize trips began. As the current pastor at Church by the Sea UMC, he carries on the tradition of international outreach. He invited the nearby Roseland UMC on the trip with him and his parishioners.
He gets the same spiritual return from the work of serving others.
“This was such an encouragement for me personally,” he said after returning from the week in Costa Rica. “It has always been part of my faith walk to be part of God’s hands and feet. I will definitely return.”
Belize 2017 is already on the calendar at Palm Harbor.
“My Mom already wants to go,” Schreifer said. “My brother said he wants to go. And I’m going to go every chance I get.”
Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.