My senior year in High School was an interesting one for my faith. I’d always been a “church person” … as long as I can remember … but during my senior year I started to have some questions … to notice some inconsistencies, to wonder what my Christianity even meant. As the year moved towards spring break, I remember being at one of my church basketball games when the youth pastor from the other church (who had probably just smoked us) approached me after the game was over and asked me if I would like to go to Peru with his youth group that spring break on a mission trip. I don’t think it was “we’re obviously better than your youth group so you should join our team” invite … I wasn’t some kind of a super Christian that everyone wanted on their mission trips … I was just a keyboard player in a killer, high school rock band … and they were going to be playing a concert for 1000+ Peruvians on this particular mission trip. So I said yes … without talking to my parents …
I’d never been out of the country before, and Bill & Lei weren’t overly excited about the possibility of my going to a developing (previously “third-world) country for my first trip overseas. Nor were they very excited about the support raising that would inevitably be taking place for a trip like this. But by the grace of God, all of those hurdles were overcome and I was destined for Peru in Spring of 2003.
Spring break finally rolled around and we flew into Lima, then rode for 3 hours on a bus that I’m certain had had its shocks stolen. The ride itself was eye opening, but nothing could have prepared me for the first place that we would be staying and working … Manchay, Peru.
Manchay is a little mining village up in the mountains. There is nothing green in sight because it hasn’t rained there in 45 years and the irrigation trucks can’t navigate the curvey mountain roads. Most of the houses didn’t have roofs on them, dogs looked like they hadn’t eaten anything in weeks … we were told that the mines were all about tapped out … there seemed very little hope in Manchay.
We pulled up to the church that we were going to be partnering with. They were providing most of the medical care for the village and needed cabinets and tables to work with … so most of our job was around that task. We bought wood for them and built tables and cabinets during the days and worshipped with the congregation at night. And the crazy thing is, the people seemed genuinly filled with joy.
But I’m getting off the intended path here. One part of our ministry was that a few students would be sharing their testimonies with the congregation in Manchay, and so the youth pastor made his way to all of the students who he didn’t know well and asked us to share our testimonies with him.
I’d never even thought about mine … to be honest I think that I probably had to ask him what a testimony was. Needless to say, I didn’t get picked to share my story with the church, but something important did happen through that conversation with Tyler; he recognized that I had a lot of unanswered questions about my own faith and that I had a hunger to have some of those questions answered. And so when we returned from the trip, Tyler called me up and asked if I’d be willing to meet with him once a week before school to talk about the story of the Gospel and read through a book together … and I said yes! It happened kind of like the start of a dating relationship, but Tyler called it “discipling” … he was “discipling” me!
I’ll spare you all of the details, but I will say this: the course of my life was dramatically altered over the next few months meeting with Tyler. It was like I had caught something and it literally changed my life. At least for the first 4 or 5 months I was on cloud 9 … that was 5 years ago.
I am still captured by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know that I’m willing to say that I became a Christian because of that mission trip … I’m not even willing to say that I hadn’t been born into my faith … but I will without hesitation say that God used the Peru, and Spring & Summer of 2003 to shape my life and invite me to take on a new role in the Kingdom of God. And even in times when I’ve wanted so badly to deny my faith, I have been unable … by the Grace of God.
Not long after the end of the last story, we reach the beginning of this one. I was a freshman at Georgia Tech and it was probably January or February of 2004 when the youth pastor from my home church called me to tell me about a great opportunity. There was going to be a summer mission trip to Honduras for college & high school students and the church had raised money to offset the cost per person so that we’d all only have to pay $400 for the whole trip!
After my last mission trip experience, I was exstatic! I got all of the info and convinced my parents to let me go. But there was still one more wall I had to get over. For the last 4 years I’d been coaching a summer league swim team and this was going to be my first year as the head coach (I also was going to be Hanarry West’s first male head coach in 13 years), and I was so excited about it!
Being as early in the year as it was, the summer league swimming calendars hadn’t made their way to me yet, so I called my boss at the club and asked her about the dates of the mission trip and whether or not I could be out of town for those dates.
The answer was no. The trip perfectly coincided with the week before the ever-important county meet and I would have to be in a number of meetings and running some very specific practices, etc.
At this point I was faced with a delima. I really wanted to go on the trip and I also really wanted to be the head coach of the swim team that I’d grown up on.
I don’t think it took me too long to decide what to do. I suggested that I could be an assistant coach again and they could hire someone else to be the head coach … and to make a long story short(er), that is what happened.
I was standing in the back yard at my fraternity house when I got the phone call from my boss:
“Hey Will, I wanted to let you know that we decided to hire Jenica Johnson to be the head coach this summer.”
“Oh that’s great! I really like Jenica and would love to work for her”
“… Oh, no. I don’t think you understood … we’re not going to be re-hiring you as an assistant. I think there would be too much confusion with the kids as to who was in charge and we want to make things as easy on Jenica as possible”
“oh … ok”
I don’t really remeber how the conversation ended … I just know that I was nearly in tears. I felt upset and angry and betrayed … I didn’t know what to do.
A few days later that week, one of the seniors in the fraternity approached me:
“hey Will, you were a worship leader in high school, right?”
“Well I volunteer for a middle school ministry at Peachtree Presbyterian Church and our worship leader is going to be out of town for a few weeks. I was wondering if you could fill in for him.”
“Sure, no problem … as long as you can give me a ride”
So that weekend I went to Peachtree for the first time, led worship for the middle school ministry, and got offered a job for the summer as their intern! It was awesome … they were even going to let me take my week off for the Honduras Trip!
The summer job was awesome … as a matter of fact it turned into an all the time job! But the mission trip to Honduras, to this day, has been my favorite trip I’ve ever taken. We worked alongside the people we were there to serve, we led a Vacation Bible School for the children in the village, we talked about materialism and need, and faith, and contentment! It was truly an amazing trip. I’ve always wanted to go back … and now I’m getting to.
But this time I’m going back as the trip leader. I’ll get to lead college students on a trip that was so powerful for me when I was in college, and that is incredibly exciting for me.
I’m not trying to tell you that if you decide to go on this trip that you’ll suddenly fall into your life’s calling or anything like that. But I am telling you my story.
In both of these cases, international mission trips served as a vehicle for God to profoundly change the course of my life. I had gone, in both cases to serve others … to do whatever I could to change their lives for the better … and I believe that happened. But even moreso, God used those times to shape me … to give me new perspective into the state of the world … not just my safe suburbian bubble.
I hope that you’ll consider joining me on this trip to Honduras. I do believe that your life will be changed … maybe some people moreso than others … but everyone who goes will come back with at least a little bit broader of a perspective.
Thanks for reading … sorry it was long!