Loving their neighbor in Chicago
Most of the Michigan teens who spent a week in Chicago in July had been to the sprawling city before, typically to visit the tourist attractions downtown. The South Side? That was considered too dangerous.
Still, they signed up for World Vision's first urban mission trip to Chicago to learn about the nature of poverty and to do something practical about it.
"I wanted to change my act — to step out of my comfort zone," says Jimmy Brodeur, 18.
He was one of 15 teens from Muskegon's Fellowship Church — another eight came from across the state at Midland Reformed Church — who joined nine adult leaders on the World Vision trip.
The group engaged in interactive training, thoughtful discussions, and hands-on volunteer work while addressing the issues of poverty, cross-cultural relationships, and service to the community.
Teens studied the parable of the Good Samaritan and considered what it means to truly love their neighbor. They learned that poverty doesn't always have to do with money.
"I didn't understand about [the effect of] broken relationships," says Hannah DeRuyter, 14, of Midland. "I thought it was a result and not a cause of poverty."
Participants examined how their lives — white, more middle class — compared with African American families struggling to get by on the South Side, and learned that the area's stereotypes often overshadowed the reality.
"People said, 'You're not going to the South Side, are you?' But there are so many good people there," says Carol VanLaan, a Muskegon parent on the trip.
Or as Midland's Elena Budinsky, 17, explains: "Labels don't define people. People are so much more than the words we give them."
In between discussions, the group put their training into practice, working at food banks, churches, and youth-focused organizations in low-income neighborhoods. They helped to distribute food to the hungry, organize playtime activities with children, paint church fences, and clean workrooms.
"I felt I've been sheltered from poverty," says Chad Gemzer, 16, of Muskegon. "This feels like you're not volunteering. It feels like you're being human."
At Hope Community Church, the group heard Mrs. Johnson, one of the food bank workers, tell about the time Pastor Steve Epting decided to empty the shelves for the poor.
"I thought, 'Is this man crazy?' The next week, we got two truckloads [of food]," she says. "I don't know how we do it. It's not for me to understand. It's God’s work."
Across the street from the church, a prominent sign on the corner listed "block rules" — no drug activity, loitering, solicitation, loud noises, etc. — and a verse from Psalm 133: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."
That unity was evident in the teens themselves. Asked how the trip had changed the relationships in her Midland group, Alyssa Dekker, 14, says, "I became closer. I got to know them better."
She also recognized the commonality with those to whom she ministered. As she worked the sign-in table at the Beautiful Zion Food Pantry, Dekker asked a woman, "How are you today?"
"I'm blessed," the woman responded. "Just like you."
At Bishop Shepard Little Memorial Center, a longtime partner of World Vision, the swirl of activity included playground games, craft projects, and construction and painting of a picnic table.
Gemzer remembered what Jeanina Payne, program director at the center, told the teens: "She said that even if we didn't feel we're making a difference, we really are."
For Courtney Remy, one of the Midland adult leaders, serving in an urban area with strikingly different socio-economics than her community proved revealing.
"The process of seeing God at work in many different ways is challenging because we're used to [seeing him the same way]," she says. That's changed.
"I'll not forget that God calls us to respond to immediate physical needs in addition to entering into longer-term relationships."
Allissa Rusco, 17, of Muskegon, was similarly moved.
"It has been a good experience," she says. "It makes me remember it's not about me."
Learn more about World Vision's mission trips in Chicago and other parts of the U.S.