By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN Youth from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie were a beacon of light in Gwinn, MI recently.
From June 26 to July 1, the group taught Vacation Bible School (VBS) and did service projects at the former KI Sawyer Air Force Base.
“This was our first time over there,” said Jenna Countryman, director of Christian education at St. Paul Lutheran Church.
KI Sawyer Air Force Base closed in 1995, and is now a place for civilians to find affordable housing.
Situated on more than 5,200 acres of land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the area is scenic, but poverty stricken.
“Drugs kind of took over their lifestyle,” Countryman said. “It’s a vicious cycle these people are caught in.”
Youth from Lester Prairie said their hearts went out to the families there.
“It was kind of sad,” said 2011 Lester Prairie High School graduate Derek Litzau. “We were there for a week and we did all we could, but there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done.”
Countryman, who discovered the mission opportunity through the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) website, said one goal was to help the families understand that heaven is real, and that things won’t always be so difficult.
“We didn’t go there to judge the people or their lifestyles,” Countryman said. “We went to show them God’s love.”
Some of the parents were a bit hesitant to let their children attend the VBS program, however, for fear that people would find out things that were going on in their homes.
“You could tell they didn’t quite trust us,” Countryman said.
By the end of the week, though, friendships were forming.
“Our goal is to go to the same place every year, so that we can establish a relationship,” Countryman said.
Hope for children
About 30 to 40 children of all ages attended VBS each day of the week. In addition to crafts, skits, games, and Bible stories, each participant got to enjoy a meal.
The lunch was greatly appreciated, and for some of the children, it was their only meal of the day.
“That was pretty sad to see,” Countryman said. “We just take that for granted.”
Many of the children at the former Air Force base have undergone significant hardships.
“This community was more hard-hit than the one we visited last year,” said Litzau, who went to Oklahoma with St. Paul Lutheran Church in 2010.
According to Morgan Roush, who will be a junior at Lester Prairie High School this fall, teaching VBS in Michigan was a lot different than in Lester Prairie.
“You can tell the kids have something they want to say, but don’t,” Roush said. “A lot of them told us they had secrets.”
Despite challenging lives, however, the children were still happy and excited to be at VBS.
“They like to have the interaction with the other kids,” Litzau said. “They’re from a poor area, but they’re like any normal kids.”
One day, the mission workers rented a bus and took the children to a large local park, where they enjoyed playtime and pizza.
In addition to VBS, Lester Prairie youth also completed service projects throughout the community and at Victory Lutheran Church in Gwinn.
Volunteers picked up trash, mowed lawn, painted a bathroom, cleaned windows, fixed a swing set, and performed other needed tasks.
Most of the trip was spent working, but there was also some time for recreation.
“We got to go swimming in Lake Superior,” Litzau said.
Lester Prairie youth spent nights at the Page Center, about 15 minutes from the Air Force base.
“That was a huge blessing,” Countryman said.
Roush, who has been on two mission trips so far, hopes that others will consider going on one, as well.
“I would just encourage people to do more mission trips,” she said. “It really opens your eyes and makes you grateful for what you have.”