By Melissa Weinman and Hilary Butschek
A trip can change a life, but a mission trip sometimes can change a community.
Many local churches take mission trips in the summer. During the trips, church members volunteer their time helping people in another part of the country or world.
Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Sandy Springs schedules an annual mission trip to Zambia. Eight to 12 members of the church, both high school students and adults, visit Zambia each year.
“My first time going was in the summer of 2011, with my wife,” Rev. Joe B. Martin IV said. “Our lives were changed by that trip more than anything since becoming parents, from seeing the poverty and seeing the community in Zambia where everyone seems to put everyone else first.”
Schools, Martin said, are a cherished part of life for Zambian children, one that not everyone has the privilege to take part in. One of the most surprising sights Martin recalls was “seeing children that sit beneath the windows of the school to hear what the teacher is saying.”
This year, the group will make the trip in mid-July for 2 1/2 weeks. They travel to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to volunteer to work in the schools.
“We visit the schools and play with kids,” said Barbara Hughes, a member of the church who has visited Zambia 15 times. “We usually spend two to three days with arts and crafts. When that’s all over, they know that someone cares about them.”
Every visit is different. Taking a trip to see far away “neighbors,” as Martin called the Zambians, benefits both the visitors and the visited. The importance of going on mission trips for the congregation, Martin said, is to build mutually-beneficial relationships.
“Our congregation motto is ‘We are blessed to be a blessing,’” Martin said. “We receive from these people, from their stories, a new spirit. We easily gain more from them than they get from us materially.”
A couple of years ago, the church brought computers to the children in Zambia. “Now our students are Skyping with the students over there,” Hughes said. The group watched the first class of graduating Faith Works high school students, 43 in all, dance onto the stage to receive their diplomas.
Other churches also head to far-away places. Dunwoody United Methodist Church, for instance, has taken a trip to Brazil each summer since 2001.
Dick Murphy, head of international missions, said church members have been working to build a summer camp for impoverished children in a village outside Rio de Janeiro. Murphy said the day camp is a way to “get them out of the hot city and into the mountains, where it’s cooler, to enjoy nature and get them away from the drugs and violence of the favelas,” Murphy said, using the Portugese term for slums.
Dunwoody United Methodist Church has worked with a small Methodist congregation in the village of Sacra Familia during their trips. “It’s a pretty rich history we have. We have gotten very close to a lot of the community people of Sacra Familia,” Murphy said.
Murphy said the church is lucky to have been able to establish such a long-standing partnership in Brazil. “I think it takes a special situation to create that kind of longevity and connection,” he said.
This year, 17 people will be travel to Brazil from July 4 to July 15.
Murphy said the purpose of mission trips is both faith- and volunteer-based.
“The purpose there is to go out and to engage in other cultures and to share, obviously, your love of Christ with them,” Murphy said. “We don’t go as evangelism, we go as a construction group to offer help to those who don’t have it or need it.”
But he said the advantage of traveling to a different country is that volunteers are able to learn about different cultures.
“It also allows Americans to experience life in another country,” Murphy said. “It’s different than being a tourist, where you stay in nice places and see the highlights and move on. This is an enormous cultural exchange experience and it changes your life completely.”
Another church in Sandy Springs aims to make the lives of others better over the summer, but it doesn’t have to go as far to do it. North Springs United Methodist Church will travel to Nashville, Tenn., in July to take part in the Center for Student Missions program.
“We will learn about the city — the unique issues and problems people face, and what God is doing in the city,” Leah Gaughan, director of youth ministry at the church, said in an email.
The students then take part in activities specific to that city. “Helping others and giving back is what our calling from Jesus is all about,” Gaughan said. “So we are committed to loving our neighbor in any way we can.”
This year the group will include seven young people and four adults who will collaborate with local ministries to serve the city.
“These ministry sites will be working at a local, client choice food pantry, gardening on an urban farm and volunteering at a homeless shelter and soup kitchen,” Gaughan said.
For a project even closer to home, Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Brookhaven will take 25 middle-school students on a five-day excursion to various charities in the Atlanta area.
“We feel like at about that age group they are thinking a lot about themselves,” Joy Baljet, a parent volunteer who leads the group, said. “We just wanted to show them that God has bestowed all of these gifts for them, and they should share those.”
Throughout the week, the students will visit Senior Connections in Chamblee to prepare food for Meals on Wheels and The Elaine Clark Center for Exceptional Children, where they will participate in activities with disabled children.
The group will also go to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta to prepare and hand out about 500 lunches to the homeless, and visit Buckhead Christian Ministry to work in its food pantry.
In any place, the mission is the same — learn from giving.
“It’s win-win, both ways,” Hughes said.