Summer vacation is past and school is in session, but 14 teens from First Lutheran Church in Tiffin will remember July 8-13. They spent that week in Knoxville, Tenn., participating in the Win Our World Urban Mission Trip. Pastor Ken Gillikin and three other adults accompanied the youth.
The participants conducted fundraisers to pay for their expenses. They shared their experiences with other members of the congregation at the July 15 worship service and during a social hour July 22. Gillikin thanked everyone who prayed or helped in any way and described the mission in the church newsletter.
"The trip surpassed all of my hopes and expectations," Gillikin wrote. "It is tremendously satisfying to return and see a group so highly motivated and inspired to do ministry. We were transformed by the work of God's Spirit, so much so, that I anticipate that this experience will impact our ministry as a congregation through those who were involved."
The chaperones included Connie English and Rick Greene. English, whose son Jacob participated, was pleased at how well everything was scheduled and organized with a faith-based, Christian focus. It was their first mission.
"The kids were kept very active. It was right downtown, inner-city Knoxville, in a historic church ... but right within walking distance were a lot of agencies that serve the poor and the homeless."
The youth worked with an organization called KARM, Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, which serves three meals a day to more than 300 people at a time. The participants helped with a variety of tasks, including serving, cleaning chairs and tables and picking up litter.
"A couple places had really big gardens they used for food for the meals or to involve people in learning how to start their own gardens," English said. "Another site was an elementary building around the corner. We went and did some painting and cleaning there."
One day, they helped at Global Seeds, which advocates for refugee Muslim families. Sometimes the volunteers trimmed bushes, scrubbed porches or pulled weeds. KARM has a thrift store where the youth sorted donated items. Whatever was useable for the current season went together for resale, while damaged or out-of-season merchandise was baled for recycling.
"They would take those bales to be auctioned off, and by auctioning one of those bales, they could feed several hundred people," English said. "It was pretty incredible."
Clearing trash from the homeless camps was especially eye-opening, English said. The group also delivered meals to the homebound and staffed the "water wagons." Huge metal tubs were filled with water and ice and placed on a wagon to dispense fresh, cold water to those who needed relief from the heat.
"We took cups and pulled this wagon. We just walked the streets and handed out ice water to people," English said.
Every adult was assigned to supervise a different group of kids for each task. Teens from other Christian churches in several states also were involved with the mission in Knoxville. Group leaders, ranging from middle-school age to college age, divided the youth into groups each day and gave out assignments. Some assignments were all day, while others only lasted half the day. Everyone blended together seamlessly.
"It was a really good experience for the kids as well as for us adults," English said. "They come back so much more mature - after one week."
Greene had been on a mission to Haiti before, but this was his first urban mission. His granddaughter, Kayley Garlock, also made the trip. Greene drove a van to transport people to their stations for the day. Because of that, he missed some of the jobs. He had wanted to work with the water wagons.
"It was a first step to start conversations with these people. I would like to go back and do that," Greene said. "We did some very interesting jobs ... Tiffin, Ohio, is not experienced in homelessness. They don't know what it is. They've never seen the degree that Knoxville has. I think it was good exposure for our kids to know how well off they truly have it."
Greene said he made two trips to the KARM thrift stores. The agency has seven stores and a warehouse where the clothing is sorted. He said the bales sell for about 30 cents a pound to buy food for the 1,000 meals that are served each day.
"Some of the different buildings KARM runs have 200-300 people every night. The people that are not lucky enough to get into the housing stay in what they refer to as 'the camps,' which are under overpasses," Greene said. "It was very inspirational to see someone standing there with all their worldly possessions in a couple bags around them. Our hearts went out to them."
Based at St. John Lutheran Church in Knoxville, the WOW program was directed by youthful leaders who "truly had ministry in their hearts," Greene said. Two of the youth pastors had come out of St. John's. Even though most of the congregation did not live in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, they were committed to community service.
Greene said volunteers were asked not to take photographs. but seeing the homeless helped everyone to realize their own blessings. When they were not working, the youth had a daily bible study and worship service. Greene was pleased that everyone expressed hope to return in the future.