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The temperature hovers around 25 degrees and the sun has yet to come up. Its 4:15 a.m. on January 5 when members of the mission team from Compass Evangelical Free (formerly Evangelical Free) and Alive in Christ Lutheran churches await check-in at the St. Louis airport. They know their many duffle bags brimming with thousands of dollars worth of medicines and eyeglasses will take extra time. But after months of planning, their weeklong mission trip is rapidly becoming a reality and excitement is high. Soon they will board their 6 a.m. flight and within a few hours they will be providing medical services, spiritual hope and comfort in an area where more than half the population lives in poverty. Their destination? Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
For team leader Dave Owens, this is his second trip to the Honduran capital city. “Last year, I didn’t want to leave,” he says. “There’s still work to do.”
According to Owens, many of the Tegucigalpa people live on $2 a day or less, and the poorest of the poor live in homes that are little more than shacks, where shower curtains serve as walls, and table cloths and cardboard boxes bridge the gaps between rickety wooden slats. “The poor often cook over a drum they’ve converted into a stove,” he says. Team member Connie Sides, who has been on four Honduran trips, says most people lack even the most basic necessities. “The toilets may be nothing more than a hole in the ground.”
The 25 members on the team this year include three from Alive in Christ, 15 from Compass Evangelical Free, one from Boonville Baptist and six from out of state. As in years past, they work under the umbrella of World Gospel Outreach, WGO, an organization that has been providing aid to Honduras since 1996. WGO, which schedules mission teams throughout the year, additionally provides each team with the support they need while in Honduras, such as accommodations at their mission house, translators, station set-ups and transportation.
Although the team arrives on a Saturday, their work begins on Monday with their first brigade. Brigades are two-day setups, each within a different church. The first brigade is Monday and Tuesday, and the second, Thursday and Friday. The services offered by each brigade are based upon the make-up of the mission team scheduled that week. “With a brigade of our size and our medical personnel, we were able to have four medical stations,” says Owens. “Three manned by our people, with translators at each station, and one manned by the Honduran doctor.”
With additional help of another team scheduled that week, and the assistance of local doctors and dentists hired through WGO, the brigades also provided pharmaceutical and dental stations. Because Owens’ team purchased $1400 worth of eyeglasses before their trip, optical stations were also available. Through their efforts, more than 3300 people received health care.
Sick and stranded
“The poor are basically stranded, as they have no means to get to medical attention if they need it,” says Owen’s wife Gail, who participated for the first time this year. “That is why the medical brigades are so important…we come to them.” She recalls helping in the optical station when a 45-year-old woman received glasses for the first time. “As the optician put the frames in front of her, her eyes lit up,” she says. “He said she probably couldn’t see past her arm.” Family physician and team member Dr. Jack Wells has been on five mission trips since 2006 and understands better than most the limited health care options facing the residents of Tegucigalpa. “Two years ago I went into one of the hospitals,” he says. “Ten windows were open for registration, and people were lined up 40 deep just to get seen by someone.”
Additionally, Tegucigalpa is a dangerous city. According to USA Today, Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world in January of 2012. For this reason, WGO makes sure teams leave their brigades by 4 p.m., before darkness settles and gang activity accelerates. Team member, Robyn Armer, a registered nurse, says she was shocked to see bullet holes in the door of one of their brigade churches. Through talking with the pastor, she discovered it was not unusual for the church to be caught in the crossfire of rival gangs, and yet the pastor and staff stay on. “Surrounded by terrible poverty and gang killings every day, they are still trying to help the people in their community, they still had smiles on their faces,” she says.
Though a large portion of their time is dedicated to medical care, the team also pours several concrete floors for individuals and families. “It’s all done by hand and with shovels, no mixers, and we have to work fast,” says Armer, who says a small room can take up to five hours to complete.
But it’s the missionary work that draws most volunteers to serve in the first place. “Our main focus is spreading the gospel,” says Owens. For this reason, after a patient receives a check-up and any prescribed medications, they leave through evangelism stations, manned by both team members and members of the host church. But Gail says there is no pressure to commit themselves to God. “Sometimes it’s just being there as their friend and seeing what they need.” Many team members also say praying with the Honduran people has strengthened their own faith as well. Wells recalls manning an evangelism station and ministering to the local pastor; asking if he could pray for him, which he did. In response, the pastor cried inconsolably for several minutes. “Later,” Wells says, “He thanked me and gave me a big hug,” It was a moment Wells will never forget.
The cost per individual is $1400, which includes essentials such as airfare, accommodations and food, but both churches offer a variety of fundraisers to help volunteers reach their financial goals. On select Sundays, Compass hosts “Munchies with a Mission” where members of the congregation can purchase snacks and bakery items; the church also holds a mission fair with activities for all ages, from kids’ games to a silent auction. Alive in Christ provides a wide range of fund-raising options including a 5K race. In addition, both churches gladly accept donations.
Although a medical background is greatly appreciated, anyone 14 years and older is welcome to join the mission team, as long as they are willing work and are able to evangelize. Additional skills and abilities are also valued. Owens, a photographer, uses his expertise to capture the mission experience through pictures. This year he created a slide show presentation as part of the Compass Evangelical Free Honduras Sunday. “The challenge is to bring people to be on fire,” he says. “Then have them come back and light the congregation on fire.” In the future, Owens hopes to provide photography services to other churches doing missionary work.
Speaking Spanish is also a plus, but is not required. “You communicate with your actions,” says Gail. “People will grab you and hug you just to show their appreciation.” Sides says fellowship and community are very important to the Honduran people. “Their compassion for each other and their love for each other is something we need to find.”
For high school freshman Sarah Stannard, one of nine youth who volunteered with this year’s mission, interacting with the Honduran people was truly a blessing. “Everyone there just overflowed with their love and faith in God. I wanted to have the same strong relationship with God as they did.”
Undoubtedly the work is rewarding, but coming back can be a bit of a culture shock. For Tyler Athon, Owen’s 15-year-old stepson, after working with people who have so little, returning to normal life and high school was tough. “I feel changed but the world around me isn’t,” he says. Wells understands and believes it’s hard for most Americans to fathom what it’s like to live in extreme poverty. “Until you are down there, smelling the smells, breathing in the burning garbage fumes and diesel fumes; breathing the dust and hearing the sounds, you can’t adequately explain it.”
Owens realizes missionary work may not be for everyone. “I tell people, if you’ve got a heart to go, then go. But if you can’t go, then you can still support, be part of the mission through financial donations and prayer. We go to love, to be Jesus to others; to share the gospel because that’s our call.”
The churches are already planning for their 2014 mission trip and many of the team members are anxious to return. “I’ll go back as many times as I can,” says Armer. Sides feels the same way. “We are sheltered and privileged here in America. We have so much more than many realize. Sometimes it takes going far away to see what is right in front of you.”
Gail plans to return as well. “It may have been my first trip, but it won’t be my last. It takes over your heart.” Perhaps Wells sums up the team’s feelings the best. “It’s a life changing experience. Those of us who go, we come back with far more than we give.”
For more information, please contact Dave Owens: firstname.lastname@example.org; (573) 443-0650