Christian Youth Mission Trip
Walking through the Jonesboro Trailer Park in Atlanta this summer, Jason Pope of the Salvation Army saw something that in most communities would be considered fairly shocking: As a black lab with no apparent owner wandered along, several teenagers drove up, stopped to shoot the animal with a BB gun, and then drove away.
Sadly, the incident was one of many reflecting a general environment of chaos and instability in the dilapidated, impoverished community comprised mostly of struggling immigrants.
“It’s hard to describe it exactly, but it would remind you of being in a two-thirds world country and seeing poverty when you’re there,” Pope said. “There are no boundaries for the kids in that community. Another kid walks up with a dead squirrel, playing with it like it’s a puppet, trying to get it to climb up trees, and we try to explain to him that he shouldn’t do that, that he could get sick.”
“When there’s no hope there, they just make stuff up,” Pope said.
Like other teams working in new urban communities across the country this year, the Experience Mission Summer Staff Intern team assigned to Atlanta had to adopt an approach of patience, consistency and sensitivity to try to reach the children.
Most kids in the struggling community were generally defiant and uncontrollable and had grown up surrounded by outside influences that glorified gang culture, intern Matt Crouch said, adding that one gang in particular had a heavy influence on the community.
“These guys growing up are seeing that’s the way to get the money, that’s the way to be cool,” he said. “So they’re 10, 11 years old and they’re trying to be part of the gang.”
Crouch said he and fellow interns were the regular objects of curse-laden tirades or obscene gestures as they returned to the community day after day to forge new inroads. At one point, Crouch was even bitten by one boy.
“He just wasn’t happy that he got out in four square. He was just going crazy, and I had to hold him back from hitting another kid, so he decided to bite my arm,” Crouch said. “I just had teeth marks and bruises for a week.”
But they didn’t let that incident or the constant deriding they received from many children dissuade them, and instead showed up every day and walked through the community to talk with families there. Crouch speaks Spanish—something that allowed him to communicate more personably with the dozens of Mexican families living there.
It was slow going, but Crouch said he found that if was able to win over the confidence of one family member, it most often translated into an open door with the entire family.
He said it was startling to see some poverty stricken families working to instill healthy discipline in their kids while others approached parenting with a sort of abandon. More active parents, he said, were constantly worried about the negative impact of the rebellious, uncontrolled children.
“It was amazing just to see the different sides of the spectrum and how they can exist so close in one community, and how they can affect each other.”
Results worth the effort
Slowly, Crouch said, holding Kids’ Club in the community every day and having the same three interns show up consistently started to send a trickle of structure through the group they were working with. That had been the hope from the beginning.
“One of our great challenges was to build at least some set of boundaries so they could feel safe and have some kind of discipline throughout the summer,” Pope said, adding that the only place they had to hold Kid’s Club, in an open field, didn’t necessarily help add to the sense of order.
Still, Pope said community members noted the improved demeanor of the 25-30 children who regularly participated in the Kid’s Club. He said their language could be used as one barometer of their progress, and recalled one day when a particularly prolific young boy went a whole day without cursing. One of the interns complimented him.
“I asked him how that felt, and he said, ‘It feels good,’” Pope said.
He said major improvements like those were most visible in the last few weeks of the summer. Pope said that while mission teams have been to Jonesboro Trailer Park before, they typically came for one isolated week. Having a stable leadership team and a consistent flow of volunteers made a significant difference this year.
“They always knew they were going to have that consistency week after week and it wasn’t just a drive by deal,” he said.
By the end of the summer, what would have been a five-minute walk through the trailer park turned into an hour-long trek for Crouch—he was stopped for small chats at nearly every home he passed.
“That was what was so hard about leaving,” Crouch said. “It takes about that much time—I was there two months, every day—to finally be accepted, where people finally start trusting you significantly.”
All urban locations initially tough
EM Executive Director Chris Clum said it was similarly difficult to make headway in other stateside urban communities, but that like in Atlanta, volunteer teams ended up spearheading the establishment of new, potentially life-changing bonds.
“Early on, we struggled in the urban communities,” Clum said. “It was a bear the first half of the summer. But the relationships we formed with our partners…it was extremely rewarding to the teams. We were able to make some pretty strong inroads, and it made a significant impact.”
In Portland, Maine and Fort Wayne, Ind., volunteers had the opportunity to work with predominately Muslim refugees—something of a unique experience for a stateside mission trip.
“There were many opportunities to talk about Christ with the Muslims, and it was done in a very appropriate way, so we’re always pleased about that,” Clum said.
Experience Mission is offering Summer 2009 trips to Atlanta, Portland, Fort Wayne, Baltimore and other urban locations. Learn more at www.experiencemission.org or call the EM office at 360-732-0986.