Twenty middle-school youth from Johnson City packed their tools and air mattresses and spent last week in Mercedes, in the Rio Grande Valley, making life better for some of the poorest residents in the state.
"Mercedes was much like Johnson City,” said Carrie Anders, youth director at First United Methodist Church, "with people who gave us an opportunity to show God’s love through our service and smiles.”
The adventure started with mixing the kids from the six different Methodist churches into teams where they had to learn to work with strangers. And work was the theme of the day. Every day.
Some went to the Team House near the border, where mission teams traveling to and from Mexico can spend the night without a motel bill. Paint teams scraped old paint and applied new, then built a new door, and wrapped it up with a decorative cross on the wall — made from prints of their hands dipped in paint.
“The paint project was my favorite job, “recalled Mason Roberts, “because we had a sense of accomplishment when the shed was done.”
On other days, teams were filling more than 100 backpacks with school supplies or making up hygiene kits of such items as soap, toothpaste and shampoo. The school supplies will go to low-income students around Mercedes, and the hygiene kits will go across the border to poor neighborhoods in Mexico, where those items are luxuries.
When that job ran out, the youngsters filled family-sized bags of rice and beans to be given this week to needy residents.
“We take personal hygiene products and school supplies for granted. This really opened my eyes to how much we have that others may not,” said Aubrey Ockman.
If that was an introduction to poverty, the real course was taught at Mission La Mesa, a small church in a nearby colonia. Colonias are unofficial communities with no city services or utilities, where the poorest residents pay for the privilege of building a home out of plywood, sheet metal, even cardboard.
In the colonia church, the students led local children in Vacation Bible School, complete with the same sort of crafts, games, play and Bible lessons we’d expect here at home — only in Spanish.
“I was worried about VBS because I'm really not comfortable with little kids,” admitted Luke Whittington, “but they loved the attention we gave them.
“I saw God in the joy in their faces, despite their circumstances.”
Although most of the time was spent working, faith was also a major part of the trip, with prayer to launch every day then a praise band and kid-led worship service every night.
“I felt like God was speaking to me in worship,” said Dooley Smith. “I went feeling a little lost and questioning who I was and was going to be as I move from middle school to high school. It was perfect because it helped me focus on who God is calling me to be.”
Between work and worship came fun time — “Olympic Games” you won’t see in Rio, being cool in the pool, and even a neon dance party illuminated by glowsticks.
“I enjoyed the free time because I got to make new friends," said Liesmann.
"My favorite part was meeting students from other youth groups who are Christians like I am,” added Sawyer Lynn.
Darlene Young, one of the six adults who made the trip with the kids, noted that it was the fourth summer mission trip the church has sponsored for middle schoolers.
“It’s such a blessing to see some of our students return summer after summer for these trips,” she said, "and to see the personal and spiritual growth these kids experience."
Special Contribution Written by George Barnette