Back in 1992, I took a group of about 15 students and a couple of other adult chaperones to a short-term, week-long mission project with a newly organized ministry called “World Changers.” We registered for a project the week after July 4th in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The project involved the use of volunteers, mostly students from church youth groups, doing volunteer labor on homes owned by low income and elderly homeowners. The improvements were funded by local agencies and the volunteer labor helped make the funding go further.
At each World Changers project, the participants are divided into groups of 10 to 12, with one adult who has knowledge and experience in home repair, one who helps supervise, and the rest are student volunteers. The work can involve anything like roofing, putting on siding, repairing sagging porches, building wheelchair ramps, scraping and painting, removing old windows and installing new ones, the kind of work that is necessary to keep the weather from causing further deterioration of a home, and make it more presentable and comfortable for the owners.
I wasn’t completely sure how the students would react to this. Most of them had trouble with motivation to get up off the couch and go outside on a hot summer day to mow their own yard. But from almost the very first day, their reaction to this ministry was different. They saw the poverty of the community and the need of the homeowners, whom they were able to meet and interact prior to going to work on their homes. They experienced the appreciation from them of their presence there. And the worship experiences each evening, after working, pointed them to the fulfillment of a ministry calling and a mission and purpose.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Matthew 25:34-36, NRSV
There were things that happened during the week that could have been major distractions. It was very hot, temperatures reached 105 degrees with stifling humidity. The night of our first worship service, the air conditioning went out in the small auditorium in the junior college where we were staying. Sometimes, building materials were late getting to a work site because we were scattered all over a three county area of the Mississippi Delta and it took time to get there. Early Wednesday morning, a tornado swept through the community, sending us to the basement at 1:00 a.m. and then, at one of the worksites, ripping off the visqueen that had been used to “dry in” the roof, causing the front part of the home to flood.
The mosquitos were impervious to off. They flew around in clouds that you could see approaching. On Thursday afternoon, at the site where I was working, across the road from a cotton field, we were covered with orange insecticide dust from a crop duster working the field. I hoped, as we washed off with the garden hose, that was all we needed to do.
But none of that bothered the students in the least. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever connected the faith they had heard all of their lives in Sunday School and church, to work they could do with their hands, serving other people in Jesus’ name. People in the communities where we were working responded to this.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would become involved in at least one World Changers project every summer afterward, until 2019. I brought groups from the Christian schools where I was working until 2002, and in 1999, became one of the project coordinators. And at every project, every summer, there were students who discovered the presence of God in ministry. They found out how fulfilling it is, and how blessed they are, when they have the chance to serve other people in Jesus’ name. And they found out that there is a powerful testimony in being a servant to others. It opens multiple opportunities to share the gospel.
“My Christian School is equipping me for ministry!”
One of the students who went on multiple World Changers trips I took with students from the school made a lot of discoveries about her Christian faith and her walk with the Lord while working on a roof in a remote “holler” in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, where we had gone that summer. She discovered, first of all, that she loved roofing, and so she volunteered when there was a worksite that needed some extra hands with a difficult roof. She also told me that she was able to use what she had learned in my Biblical Apologetics class when she spoke with the next door neighbor, who proclaimed to her and the crew that he was an atheist. He did not respond to their offer to pray with him, but she was thrilled that she had the chance to use some of what she knew.
Several years later, I got an email from her. She was a student at Texas A&M, and in her freshman philosophy seminar, the professor had put forth a challenge to all the “Christians” in the lecture hall, telling them that by the time he was finished with the semester, he hoped they would no longer believe all of that “fiction.” But she was prepared.
She came home one weekend and retrieved her apologetics class textbook, a copy of Josh McDowell’s A Ready Defense. All through the semester, she responded to his statements with facts, answers to questions that would cause most people to fold and go silent. At one point during the semester, he started ignoring her raised hand and at the end of the semester, he told her she was the first student to ever challenge his assertions and wanted to know where she got “all of that.” She told him.
She told me that when she was in my class, she wasn’t sure that she would ever use what we were learning.
“But you were right,” she said. “I did a lot of thinking about it when I was up on those roofs that summer when we were in Kentucky.”
And the King will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40