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United Methodist students share Peru mission experience

Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS Report By Jane Dennis

Thirty students and leaders from three United Methodist colleges joined forces this summer to work, live and witness among the people of Chincha, Peru.

Students from Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., worked together on a 12-day Volunteers in Mission trip to Peru.

The students wielded pickaxes and shovels and mixed and poured concrete for a foundation for a Methodist day school. They also laid brick for a kitchen facility and were called to be painters and clean-up crews, volunteers at a hospital and friends to the dozens of children and residents in the area who turned out to help with the work.

"Fifty or more children showed up every day at the work site," said the Rev. J.J. Derden, program coordinator of the Hendrix-Lilly Initiative, which sponsored the trip along with Hendrix College. "They were just ecstatic that these college students would play and read with them."

The children were a main reason Nic Poppe, a senior philosophy and Spanish major at Hendrix College, returned to the region. He was among the student volunteers who traveled to Chincha last summer on the first joint mission effort organized by Lambuth and Hendrix.

Though the days are long and hot and the work strenuous, "you know that you're helping a community strengthen itself," Poppe said.

"I loved being able to connect with two other colleges and work alongside others and learn from them as well," said Kati Jo Klein, a senior elementary education major at Dakota Wesleyan University.

The volunteers also visited with the townsfolk of Chincha, a costal town about three hours south of Lima, to talk with them about the church, politics and the state of their lives, Derden said.

"It was getting students 'beyond the bubble,' as we say at Hendrix; going from a culture of privilege to a place where there's a lot of poverty. They were able to see what life is like in a different culture and socioeconomic class, and that's very important for developing stronger faith and spirituality."

The students also brought along an incubator donated by a Conway hospital and presented it as a gift to San Jose Hospital in Chincha.

The three colleges became connected in the mission effort through their chaplains. The Rev. J. Wayne Clark, Hendrix College chaplain, is a friend and mentor to Lambuth's assistant chaplain, the Rev. Andrew Thompson, a Hendrix graduate. Thompson attended seminary with the Rev. Tim Eberhart, chaplain at Dakota Wesleyan University.

The mission volunteers "were very enriched by the family atmosphere of Chincha," Derden said, as well as "how much they offered us and how they worked together. A little 5-year-old boy would be lifting blocks, and no one would scold him or tell him, 'Don't do that!' They were all working together for something for the community."

Eberhart concurred. "What was so powerful about it is these are the very children who'll benefit from this school. For them to be part of that work was very gratifying for us. We were confident that one day they would look over at a wall and say, 'I helped build that.'"

The Methodist Church in Peru has a vision to build a school and children's day-care facility in Chincha that will be used both for educational purposes, Bible study and faith enrichment, Derden explained. The vision includes a cafeteria, playgrounds, school buildings, dormitories and a neighborhood community center.

"There's nothing like this in Chincha, and it will take a lot of work, materials and time to see it completed," she said.

The summer experience made a lasting impression.

"We went to Peru expecting to encounter the downtrodden, the lowly of spirit, the poor," Eberhart said, "and we were quite surprised when we encountered faces filled with joyfulness, playfulness and laughter. The people of this region have nowhere near the material wealth we have, but their spiritual wealth is immense."

The trip expenses were about $1,500 per person. The students held fund-raisers on campus and garnered sponsorships from local churches and individuals to cover the costs.

"Every young person who goes on a mission trip like this, and who experiences Christian service outside their 'comfort zone,' is one more person who brings that witness back to his or her local church and community," Thompson said. "They come home so excited that they just can't wait to tell others about it, so even more people have their eyes open to serving the Lord."

"I have a strong desire to help others - this is one of my passions and greatest gifts," Klein said. "I hope to be able to continue taking mission trips in and out of the country. I'm so thankful for the opportunities I have had. I would strongly encourage anyone who is debating whether or not to go on a trip like this to jump at the opportunity because it will be an eye-opening, heart-breaking, God-filled experience."

Many of the students on the trip have expressed an interest in the ministry or in service programs such as the Peace Corps, Derden said. "To see the tremendous gifts in these students, from those who worked with the children, to those who showed natural leadership abilities at the work site - I was blessed to be part of that. The amount of gifts God has given is truly amazing."