By Kristen Miller
DASSEL, MN Mission work can be defined as going out of one’s comfort zone, helping others, and sharing God’s love with those less fortunate.
That is exactly the kind of work 18 youth and four adults from Gethsemane Lutheran Church chose to partake in as part of a YouthWorks mission trip to Cairo, IL.
The trip to Cairo (pronounced CARE-oe) took place June 19-25, with the focus being on outreach among the youth in the impoverished town located on the southern-most tip of Illinois, where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers converge.
Those on the trip included Cali Patten, Erika Hart, Kendra DuChaine, Evan Schnitzler, Zach Grochow, Hannah Richardson, Hayley Broberg, Melanie Johnson, Danielle Bapp, Leif Torgersen, Jacob Grochow, Samantha Larson, Kayla Sturm, Isaac Nelson, Mitch Grierson, Ben Babekuhl, Cole O’Brien, and Shawna Sturm.
The adult leaders were Cindi Patten, Linda Heggedal-Hart, Greg Nelson, and Mark Giese.
Upon arriving to the town which appeared nearly desolate the group found empty, boarded-up buildings and abandoned houses.
“It didn’t feel like we were in the US. It felt like we were in another country,” said Hannah Richardson.
What took the Dassel church group to Cairo was the need they were told of through YouthWorks.
Cairo was once a prosperous town due to the rivers and railroad, but with the decline in river trading and the bypass of the railroad around the town, the population declined rapidly.
It is also said to have been the most prominent segregated town in the state of Illinois during the civil rights movement.
When integration was enforced, caucasian business owners chose to shut their doors rather than hire African-American workers, explained Cindi Patten, one of the adult supervisors on the trip.
Race riots and lynchings in the streets accompanied these times of racial distress, according to Patten.
Today, the population is around 3,000 people with the majority being African-American. The town suffers from a very high unemployment rate and low tax base as businesses continue to leave town, Patten explained.
While there, the group worked with kids from around Cairo, playing with them and teaching Bible lessons through a program called Kids Club.
Kids Club is similar to a vacation Bible school, where kids do a variety of Bible-centered activities.
Isaac Nelson spent most of his time participating in Outrageous Sports Camp, teaching the kids about Jesus through a variety of sports-related activities.
Some also spent time working on people’s homes within the poverty-stricken community.
This helped give Cairo residents a sense of hope, many of whom have felt abandoned, Patten explained.
Richardson helped scrape and paint a house one day, but mainly worked with the kids during Kids Club.
Each day there were about 60 kids from the community between the ages of 4 and 11 who would participate in the program.
Working in Kids Club was what Richardson enjoyed the most about her time in Cairo, mainly because she was able to interact with the kids, who she thought needed the attention.
“Some kids just loved you because they didn’t get that kind of attention from home,” Richardson said.
Oftentimes, the kids didn’t want to go home and would kick and scream, she said.
Seeing the level of poverty was shocking for the group.
“You would never see that around here,” Richardson said, noting not only the level of poverty, but also the disengaged home life many of the children of Cairo faced every day.
“It made me realize how lucky we are to live in the community we do,” she said.
Being there, the group could see how appreciative the parents and kids were that they were there helping to make a difference.
On their last night, the group participated in a community picnic sponsored by YouthWorks.
Here, the community was able to come out and share in a meal in the town park.
“We’re pretty sure the whole town came,” Richardson said.
“You could tell they were happy we were there,” she added.
Within a week after the group returned home, Patten heard some of the youth saying they wanted to go back to Cairo.
“It was fun being with the people and learning about them and know you’re making a difference,” Richardson said.
She would like to see the difference YouthWorks has made since their church group left Cairo in June.
Both Nelson and Richardson found the trip to be eye-opening and a spiritually-reflective experience.
“I learned that I can’t always think about myself, and that there are kids in the community who are in worse situations,” Nelson said.
“It also brought me a lot closer to my faith,” he added. Richardson agreed.
One event that was said to be particularly spiritual was a foot-washing ceremony that took place while at camp.
During this ceremony, the adults washed the feet of the youth to symbolize when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
“It was a very emotional and moving ceremony,” Nelson said.
To raise funds for the mission trip prior to departure, the youth hosted a chicken dinner, served coffee and rolls, sent out donation letters, and sold flowers.
This experience would not have been possible without the support of the church, Patten said, in appreciation.
“It speaks to the perception of the value of our youth in the church,” Patten said.