T.J. Ruen of Lanesboro shows his muscle while helping dig a trench for a water line on a mission project. Watching with a shovel is Christopher Freese, also of Lanesboro. The two are members of Bethlehem Lutheran in Lanesboro. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE REV. AMANDA LARSEN
T.J. Ruen of Lanesboro shows his muscle while helping dig a trench for a water line on a mission project. Watching with a shovel is Christopher Freese, also of Lanesboro. The two are members of Bethlehem Lutheran in Lanesboro. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE REV. AMANDA LARSEN
LUMC and WUMC brought the total of 18 to KUO.
In other words, the Lanesboro United Methodist Church and the Wykoff United Methodist Church took 18 local youth from Lanesboro, Preston, Rochester and Wykoff to Kokomo, Ind., to work with the Kokomo Urban Outreach (KUO).
Led by the Rev. Amanda Larsen, pastor at LUMC and WUMC, the Methodist teens joined forces with others from Southeastern Minnesota from Lutheran, Baptist and unknown churches. They took two vans to Indiana in late June to serve people in need in Kokomo.
Larsen explained the group ended up going to Indiana on a mission trip after she saw the project on a list of United Methodist places looking for volunteers.
“I had also tried a bunch of other places, but they were full, so we ended up in Kokomo, where the people who used to work at auto plants for $32 an hour were now re-hired back for $12 to $15 an hour after the plants re-opened,” she explained. “Kokomo was hit by a tornado and a flood last year, so things down there weren’t getting any better. That’s part of the reason that Kokomo Urban Outreach exists — a guy wanted to move back to his hometown, but the auto industry is not doing well since two plants closed down, so there’s a lot of poverty, and he saw that he could do something for the people.”
She elaborated that the 10-hour drive and the week spent in Kokomo had a dual purpose — to serve the people, but also to teach the youth she brought about the blessings they already have and to show them the difference they can make for someone else.
“We alternate between going far and staying close, and I like doing urban trips because it helps expose them to different ways of life,” Larsen said. “When we got there, we stayed on the floor of the church where KUO operates — the rooms were air conditioned, they gave us air mattresses, and they said that if there was anything we needed, we could just let them know. We got there at 9 at night, and the people waiting for us asked if we’d eaten anything, but we hadn’t, so they went out and got a stack of pizzas.”
When they got up the next morning and had breakfast, she and the youth got ready to go to the work site, which was right next to the church. She explained there were four different projects all in the neighborhood of the church.
“We kind of floated among the projects, with different people with different skills put to work where they could go,” she said. “The younger kids were there sort of to have a good time, and the older ones were there to get to see that their work makes a difference.”
The urban missionaries were put to work roofing, continuing tornado cleanup, digging trenches to make way for new electrical service for KUO’s refrigerator and freezer shed, assisted with cleanup of government-owned apartments and lent a hand in carrying out groceries at a food pantry.
“One day, a couple of the kids went to help at the food pantry, to help people go through with dignity. There was also a group cleaning out some government apartments so new people could move in,” Larsen recalled. “Their eyes were opened the most there, because most of the people who had lived there had been evicted and didn’t care what they left.”
She said many of the kids didn’t understand why anyone would want to live in a place like that, but Larsen noted there was a really good relationship between the church and the government housing. She noted it was originally built for the auto industry people coming back from World War II and converted to government housing and there continues to be a waiting list for renters.
Larsen related, “We did roofing tear-off and put some back on, and everybody learned how to do it by hand, slowly and by being patient, as opposed to using a nail gun. The kids who were missing weight lifting let their coach know that they were getting their lifting done there. We also took out a tree that was in the wrong spot.”
Lessons were found in every corner of the Kokomo experience, including in the games the group played and in the food they ate.
One night, the local missionaries participated in a game to learn what it’s like to be on an assistance budget. Larsen said the kids learned very quickly that it’s not enough money. Those who were running the “stores” were told how to treat those who were shopping.
“Some kids were turned away because they had pets, others were turned away because they didn’t have enough money, so they learned how things work — or how they don’t — when you’re on assistance,” Larsen said. “We ate like we were poor, with a lot of casseroles, salt and iceberg lettuce, but the outreach also showed us a lot of radical hospitality with plates of chips and cookies from the food donations they get in. If we wanted a shower, that meant going to the Y.”
Larsen pointed out they also took a tour of the neighborhood to see what KUO’s ongoing missions are. “We got to tour one night to hear all the things the outreach did. They showed us a map of all the neighborhoods they serve in, showed us a teen outreach center, talked about their ministry at the local strip club where they’d go in and pray with the women who work there.”
Larsen observed the biggest challenge of taking on an urban mission trip’s tasks stood in knowing that the group’s work was done at the end of the week and that someone else would be along soon to pick up the hammer, move the boxes, dig holes and listen to people who need a listener.
“It can be hard going on mission trips, because there’s so much to do, and you’re just one piece,” she said. “With KUO, we could see that we were a piece of the bigger picture. We were rewarded with gratitude for how good we do have it, and by hearing the little stories of how we made a difference.”
LUMC and WUMC will be venturing out again to lend a hand, but the next trip is to Jamaica.
“One of the goals specific to LUMC is that they work with people to serve. Locally, we can serve by helping with Habitat for Humanity’s Brush with Kindness, or if people need their gutters cleaned. A mission trip doesn’t have to be far away, but it changes you a lot more often than the people you go to help,” Larsen concluded.