Thoughts of spring break evoke images of fun-in-the-sun activities. During the snowy, cold, dark days of winter, many look forward to a week of warmth and relaxation.
Beaches and amusement parks are popular destinations but not the only places to find renewal. Some United Methodists choose an alternate time away, spending some of their vacation time serving with people in need.
Laura Sink remembers her first family mission trip, "I was a bit reluctant but my kids and husband inspired me—okay, let's say taunted me—to go. They wanted a new adventure. I wanted relaxing beach!"
Not wanting to be the "wimp of the family," Sink prepared to go. She "packed up our entire medicine cabinet" to travel with her husband and their three children to Panama as part of a mission team from Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Sink found the 2011 trip surprisingly refreshing. "More relaxing than our all-inclusive trip to Jamaica," she says. "Not wanting to look at Facebook, the clock, or my phone, freed me up to be in relationship with those on the trip with me as well as the kids and families of Panama."
A break at the right time
Dakarayi Chabaya, a senior business major at United Methodist-affiliated Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, agrees. Like many universities and colleges, Central Methodist organizes an alternate spring break mission trip each year, and has recently offered another mission trip during fall break as well.
Chabaya, a native of Zimbabwe, has traveled with the university's mission team every year of his college career. Trips to Puerto Rico, Texas, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. have been a great break from his studies.
"The mission trips always seem to come at the perfect time," Chabaya said. After long weeks of focusing on yourself, it is a "good release...to have the opportunity to think about others." When he returns to campus, he finds himself ready to finish the semester with renewed energy.
Chabaya encourages others to attend the mission trips by reminding them that they could "either be sitting home or making a difference" during spring break.
Early in 2015, he was looking forward to another rewarding experience on the spring break mission trip to Miami he was awaiting.
It's about relationships
The Rev. Dawn Livingston, Executive Director of Epworth Center, home of the SOWER Work Mission in Bethesda, Ohio, has seen the effect mission trips have on participants. "At SOWER, we find that engaging youth and college students in mission work is about more than providing home repairs," she said, "it's about building relationships between our group participants and the neighbors we serve. The home repairs are important, but the personal connections made are what adds to the meaning."
Livingston continued, "The United Methodist Church has an emphasis on ministry with the poor, and it's something that is transformative, to begin walking alongside others, cultivating relationships and making a difference."
Meaningful for the whole family
Relationships that make a difference can be built by people of all ages.
Rachel Estes, Director of Outreach and Missions for Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has been leading spring break mission trips to Panama for seven years, including the ones Laura Sink and her family attended. Estes has seen the impression mission trips have on the children who attend, and how the children serve as an important part of the team.
"Children often become leaders," Estes said, "teaching parents and other adults."
When the showers are not working or the lines to get in them are too long, often the children find alternate places to bathe. They discover the good, deep places in the river and then lead the adults to them.
In addition, the children are often the first to make deep connections across the cultural divide. "There is no language barrier for the kids," Estes said. "Play is universal." The children interacting is often the first step toward bringing together the mission team and the people they serve.
How young is too young?
Mary Lee Russell, the Outreach Mission Chairperson of Bonds Chapel United Methodist Church in West Baden, Indiana has been participating in, and later leading, mission trips since 2005. She remembers a year she was concerned with the ages of several participants.
A family with an 8-year-old son signed up for their mission trip to Mississippi where they would assist people recovering from Hurricane Katrina. She wondered if the boy and two children from other families who were not much older than him, would be able to stay focused on their assigned tasks or might become a distraction to others on the team. Her concerns were quickly allayed while watching the children at the worksite.
They worked on the home of a man in his 80s who was wonderful with the children. He patiently showed them how to use tools safely and taught them the proper way to load a wheelbarrow.
The 8-year-old Russell was concerned about "fell in love with mission trips" and now invites friends to come along with him. "All three of those children have been baptized," she reports. "Their lives have been changed."
Find your rewarding experience
Sink also knows the powerful memories the mission trip made for her family. She said, "I don't think any family vacation has had the impact on all of us like [the family mission trip to] Panama did."
The rest, renewal, and togetherness many long to achieve during a spring break vacation can be found while making a huge difference in the lives of others. Additionally, you will receive a rewarding experience to last a lifetime.
United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) offers many great places to serve as a group, family, or individual. Their website will help guide you to find the place that is right for you.
This story was first published on March 10, 2015.