By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN Oftentimes, mission trips begin with a person’s desire to administer to those hurting and in need. In the end, however, they find their own lives have been changed.
That’s exactly how two members of Elim Mission Church of Cokato felt upon their return from a mission trip to Haiti this past winter.
Tom Nelson of Cokato and Rick Riesgraf of Annandale spent the last week in January with a group of 17 from Becker Free Church, where former Elim pastor Dave VanWingerden, now ministers.
Even since VanWingerden’s time at Elim during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, he remained a large influence in Nelson’s life, particularly his dedication to serving the people in Haiti. This was VanWingerden’s third trip to Haiti since the earthquake devastated the Caribbean country more than a year ago.
The eight-day mission trip was through Jesus in Haiti Ministries (JIHM), which has several distinct ministries JIHM Executive Director Tom Osbeck refers to as “points of light.”
These key areas, where the group spent most of their time, included Grace Emmanuel School for students in grades k-6, Osbeck Home, where 25 boys and young men live; and Lighthouse Children’s Home for orphaned children, where the occupancy has quadrupled since the earthquake.
The area of focus was in small communities just outside the capitol of Port-au-Prince where it’s estimated that 90 percent of the city has yet to be touched after the destruction from the earthquake, Nelson reported.
There is also estimated to be one million people still homeless, many of whom are living in temporary homes made up of nothing more than four branches and a tarp.
The first day the group was in Haiti, they were taken to a mass grave, where 150,000 people who died in the January 2010 earthquake are buried, many of whom are unidentified.
There, they saw rows upon rows of crosses that were erected as memorials; each one is to signify 100 people.
“It was quite a way to start our week,” Nelson said.
Much of the trip was spent sharing the group’s gifts and love with the children of Haiti, but particularly those in Osbeck’s homes.
For example, Nelson, who is a mechanic for the City of Plymouth, spent part of his time teaching the young men at the Osbeck Home about vehicle maintenance, such as changing oil and checking brakes.
Much of the mission included building relationships and sharing love to the orphans who otherwise don’t get the affection and attention they long for.
Riesgraf and the group, for example, brought with them balloons that they would blow up for the orphans at the Lighthouse Children’s Home to play with, along with candy to enjoy.
“That was a big deal for them,” Riesgraf said, describing the continuous smiles on the children’s’ faces as a result of something as simple as a balloon. He also said that unlike homes in the US that are filled with toys, there, the children have none.
On Sunday, the group took some of the children to church. “They never left your side,” Riesgraf said.
To connect with Haitians outside of the ministry, they went on what the ministry calls a “River Walk.” For this, the group parked the van next to a river in the community and walked along it.
The kids would then come out of their shanty homes, and parents, too, and the group would play games with the kids. They also performed a short skit (with a Creole interpreter) about the story of the Creator and how he created all his people equal yet special, Riesgraf described.
“The kids [and parents] trust you,” he said, explaining that they know that the ministry is there to help them.
“They are so genuinely grateful and respectful for what you’re doing there,” he said.
While this was Nelson’s second trip like it to an impoverished Third-World country (he was part of a mission trip to Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami), this was Riesgraf’s first mission trip.
He heard the voice of God after the earthquake, Riesgraf said.
“The images of the crying and frightened children ripped my heart out. God spoke loud and clear to me,” he said, explaining that he was called to “step up and actually do something instead of sitting on the sidelines.”
“I immediately knew that I had to go and somehow touch and encourage whoever I could [there],” Riesgraf added, explaining he was led to act, instead of just respond with prayer and financial gifts.
For Nelson, he believes that “we’re called to have compassion for the poor and the down-and-out.”
“I have a lot of confidence of the Lord’s work that [VanWingerden] is doing there, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Nelson explained as the reason he became involved in this recent mission trip.
The men definitely have no regrets and have found their lives have changed because of it.
The group was told prior to the trip not to go expecting to make a huge impact overall on the country of Haiti. Instead, they should go knowing they will have their own life changed.
For Riesgraf, he realized just how much Americans take for granted and how different our priorities are.
“My life has changed because of that,” he said.
Nelson agrees that this trip has definitely impacted what his priorities are in life, and he would like to go back again.
Riesgraf and Nelson are actually hoping to get a team together from the Cokato area for another mission trip to Haiti in January 2012.
“As much as it’s nice to come back to the comforts of America, it’s hard to leave a place like that,” Nelson said.