Whose life really gets changed on mission trips?
Written by Jimi Izrael
Eighty-eight teens and 16 adults from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., built a home, among other tasks, during their spring mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. First Congregational UCC, Guilford, Conn., photo.
Mission is a funny thing. Some receive a call without reason, others see reason but are still unclear about what they are called to do.
That isn't the case in Mississippi. Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., hosted the Pilgrim Fellowship youth group from First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., this past spring in a life-changing mission to raise a house from scratch.
During the year, Guilford's youth group does local mission work in its own community. It then picks an impoverished region for a large springtime mission. Merrilyn Garcia, director of the church's youth ministry, is very clear about the calling of her group. Pilgrim Fellowship is committed to doing God's work, she says. And in hooking up with Back Bay Mission, most would agree it's a good match.
Compassionate service and social justice
Since Back Bay Mission began in 1922, its mission has been to serve "the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the wider church community by faithful witness for social justice and compassionate service to the poor and marginalized." A tall order to be sure, but why Back Bay Mission does this work is very clear to those who work there.
"The 'why' of what we do at Back Bay Mission has long been anchored in the prophetic mandate of Micah," says the Rev. Shari Prestemon, Back Bay's executive director. "It tells us that the Lord requires that we 'do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.' The example of Jesus instructs us further that love for neighbor is a mandate of our faith, and that such love must be made real by our daily acts of compassion, mercy and peace-making."
"Back Bay Mission strives to be a sign of love incarnate," she says, "offering a faithful presence among the poor and suffering in our community, and providing a faithful witness to the Church."
The goal, says Prestemon, is to provide a transforming experience that makes a lasting imprint on participants' hearts and minds, by putting a face on the issue of poverty and by offering an example of the church working with joy to seek justice in the world.
88 teens, 16 adults
Garcia and Prestemon met in the fall of 2001, and Garcia inquired about bringing her group to Biloxi. When suitable projects arose, Garcia packed up 88 teens and 16 adults from her Pilgrim Fellowship group and set out for Mississippi. The projects? There were six, including rehabbing a recreation center and building a new home for a couple whose home had been lost.
Megan Yuhas was one of the teens that undertook this feat. She has been on a lot of mission trips throughout high school, but Back Bay is her favorite. "I was part of a group that was building the house," she says, "and it was a truly amazing experience. It was hard work and everyone, including myself, often got tired."
Yuhas' group worked from 9 to 5 with an hour for lunch. The sun beat down on them, and there was nary a breeze in the air. But that hardly mattered, says Megan, as everyone was part of the team and everyone played their part. "It didn't matter what the work was," she says. "If people knew it had to get done, they did it. It was so unbelievably satisfying to see teenagers, girls and boys, giving it their all to build a house for an elderly couple. It really made me proud."
Going to Mississippi really gave her a new appreciation for her life, says Yuhas. "I've seen a lot of poverty, and a lot of homelessness," she says. "However, Biloxi was the one place where I had interaction with some of the people, and really heard their stories. It's interesting how you go on a mission trip hoping to change someone's life and, although you do, they change your life so much more. They give you a new perspective on life, and give you a whole new reason to be happy. Seeing people who have so little makes you really value the life you have. It also makes you want to travel more places and spread more love."
Nicholas Catino concurs with Yuhas. Back Bay Mission had a profound effect on his spiritual growth.
"The Back Bay Mission allowed me and my peers to experience a whole new society and to fully understand different cultures," says Cantino. "The people of Biloxi were the kindest I have ever met in my life. Their help, support and this mission trip were unbelievable in that every person was touched by this amazing community in one way or another. Friendships were made and it really did change our whole outlook on life."
Within five days, the group had framed up a new house, put the majority of siding on it, and completed the roof on the new home. They tackled a number of other major projects throughout Biloxi, benefiting countless low-income families. "The group was focused and enthusiastic," says Prestemon, "filled with a deep understanding of the value of service and mission."