Like many do, the pastor and a few members of Grove Park Baptist Church made commitments this January. However, theirs were not about exercising more, losing weight, or any of the other traditional resolutions. Instead, they resolved to make a difference in the lives of others and help spread God’s love to the ends of the earth, a commitment on which they quickly acted, setting out on a mission trip to Africa early last month.
Grove Park pastor Dr. Gary Threat and wife Becky along with church members Eric and Sharon Spell and Linda Johnson traveled to Ethiopia to serve the people there by helping them with their physical needs and by showing them God’s love.
On mission for a week, Jan. 3-11, the group set their feet on Ethiopian soil in the capital city of Addis Ababa then traveled some 200 miles on a seven hour journey upcountry to Menz where they would serve. It is an area of Ethipoia familiar to the Threat family.
“My wife was raised in Ethiopia from fourth through 12th grade,” shared the Grove Park pastor, noting that his in-laws had been missionaries to the country. In 1993, Threat and his wife returned to where she spent much of her childhood, living and serving in Ethiopia for two years before returning to the States and taking the pastor position at Grove Park.
The contacts they made during their previous times in Ethiopia, both separate and together, helped make it possible for the team from Grove Park to go into the country this year and serve.
And serve they did. In Menz, the team held eye care clinics, something very much needed, they said, as the country, being near the equator, is very dry, hot, and at a high altitude.
“They have a lots of eye problems,” said Eric Spell, mentioning that life expectancy in the country is only 42 years old. “Their eyes just age so fast.”
The team screened people for near-sightedness and far-sightedness, and once a person’s particular eye problem was diagnosed, the team fitted the person with glasses, ones that they had collected prior to the trip.
“Their faces are smaller than ours. They just have petite faces,” noted Sharon Spell who was in charge of fitting glasses for those who came to the eye care clinic seeking help.
“Shade glasses are also a prized commodity since the sun is very harsh there,” Eric pointed out. Fortunately, the team had many pairs of sunglasses to give away thanks to the Girls in Action (GAs) group at Grove Park that collected around 100 pairs of sunglasses for the mission trip.
While they worked to address a particular physical need of the people in Ethiopia, they also worked to share the Good News, giving all who came through their clinics Christian tracks.
“You can’t go out in the streets there and witness and hand out tracks,” pointed out Eric, describing how the clinics offered a way for them to witness to Ethiopians.
“You don’t want to offend,” said Threat, explaining that Ethiopia is 40 percent Orthodox Christian, 40 percent Muslim, 20 percent Evangelistic Christian, and the rest traditional African religions.
“You want to go and help the local churches reach out more,” he explained further, noting that the local churches know the local people better and can therefore be more effective than outsiders can.
Like many who go on mission trips, the Grove Park team stressed that they felt like they received more than they were able to give, coming away with an experience that they never before could have imagined.
“You couldn’t really grasp what you were doing until you were over there,” said Eric, recalling the interesting aspects of the Ethiopian way of life —the mud houses with grass or tin roofs, the children who attended school half days so that they could shepherd their families’ flocks of sheep the rest of the day, the way the people used everything including using animal dung for fuel, and the way the women would invite the team into their homes, performing coffee ceremonies and serving them popcorn.
“You know coffee supposedly originated there and every time they would wash the beans, roast them, crush and grind them and then serve it,” he described.
“The people were so grateful; it was really humbling,” Sharon interjected, mentioning that Ethiopians were celebrating Christmas at the time and would invite the team into their homes during their holiday.
Johnson agreed, also noting how the Ethiopians, although a proud people, were “such a thankful group of people, just so humble and appreciative of what we did, and what we did seemed so little because we only had a short time there but they were so thankful.”
“It makes me appreciate the small things in life more now,” she added. “I realized that I took things for granted that are really blessings.”
“You just cannot compare it to our culture,” said Eric, who has been a mission trips before. “It’s a very unique part of the world. Life is so simple there.”
“I felt like I had gone back into biblical times and that I was going to see Mary and Joseph coming down the road,” added Sharon, noting that serving in Ethiopia was her first mission trip experience.
The Ethiopian children also left quite an impression on the team.
“The children work; they’re trained as shepherds starting at about five years old,” shared Threat. “The economic system there depends on children watching the animals and wealth often comes to how many cows or sheep you have or if your house has a tin roof. It’s small farming.”
“The kids socialize with each other while watching their flocks,” Eric added, describing how they often saw kids playing games with rocks and sticks. “That was one of the hardest things, knowing that the kids can’t leave. I would love to have taken them and put them in a better life environment. It was tough to leave them but they’re happy.”
As interesting as the culture was, all agreed that what really impacted them most was seeing God move in another, very different part of the world.
“The most rewarding thing was helping someone who is really in need and crossing a lot of barriers and putting yourself in a submissive environment to do that,” said Eric. “We received much more of a blessing than what were are able to leave there; it impacts you more than it probably does them…It’s something to experience God in another culture.”
For Johnson experiencing God in another culture was made even more rewarding by it being a shared experience.
“I had not been able to really have spent time with our pastor and his wife since they are new, and although I knew the Spells from going to church with them, I hadn’t served with them,” she shared, “so getting to have a closer relationship with all of them through the trip was a blessing. We all just came together to try to help. It was really awesome.”
“People have asked me what was the most profound thing that I saw while over there, and for me, it was not what I saw but what I didn’t see. I didn’t see color,” shared Sharon. “I was like, ‘I’m here to serve and I’m just here with God’s people.’”
“It was my first mission trip and it was something to go so far away and they (Ethiopians) are like us in so many ways,” Johnson added.
Threat agreed, noting that “the racial stuff doesn’t come out there. You just see people as people.”
“It’s that internal feeling that you’ve had an impact on a few people,” said Eric, attempting to put the life-altering experience into words. “As Christians that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
“I hope to make other trips and not just ones far away,” shared Johnson of the affect the mission trip to Ethiopia had on her. “I also want to see how I can help close to home.”
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.