PLEASANTON – A group of Pleasanton residents back from a stint as missionaries in Honduras say the personal relationships they built were more important than the buildings they worked on. The group claimed it was an “amazing, grace-filled mission”.
A team made up of 15 members of Pleasanton Presbyterian Church traveled to Helene, Honduras, this month to continue a three-year commitment to helping residents of the Caribbean island.
They brought suitcases full of building and medical supplies, then worked to complete a school for islanders and a home for missionaries who live on the island year-round.
“We all felt blessed to be there. We prayed, shared, worked, built, served, cleaned, laughed, cried, ate, worshipped, sang, itched, explored, hoped, made friends, and grew in our vision for Pleasanton and the world. My most significant impression from this trip was to see how valuable the work of this mission project is. The faith of the local people who have become Christians and the enthusiasm they show is amazing! It is obvious the impact they are having and can have in the future as their plans for growth are completed.” Member Al Baer reflected on the trip.
Working under the direction of Alternative Missions, an Arizona-based non-profit organization, the group helped islanders build a classroom, computer room, library and two bathrooms inside the school. They also put a roof on a home being constructed for missionaries.
The rough lumber available was "all pine, very green and heavy with sap, and not milled real well," said the team leader of the Pleasanton group, Robin Little.
A planner for AC transit, Little is also a veteran of other missionary expeditions. "I found worse wood in Mexico, but it's still nowhere near the quality of what you find in the U.S."
Although the group was proud of the job they did, "I think what we all realized was the physical work we were doing was the least important reason to be there," said Terry Bedell. The 59-year-old packaging researcher found that, instead, "It was all about the outreach making connections with the people."
"It's not so much about the buildings you leave, as the relationships you build," he said.
Although Helene is in the same latitude as popular Caribbean vacation destinations, there are few of the amenities that tourists would demand. Until volunteers from Alternative Missions built a medical clinic and a small desalination facility, there weren't even basics like health care and drinking water.
"People who don't own their land build over the water, so their plumbing is a hole in the floor," Little said.
For drinking water, many people still depend on storing the water that rolls off their rooftops during storms.
Although Little and his wife Carol had been to Helene before, this year's trip was the first for Bedell and other members of the group.
In addition to being unaccustomed to the humidity, they found themselves missing little things Americans take for granted.
"I never took shorter showers in my life," Bedell said.
One volunteer with experience building solar hot water heaters offered to build such a system. But the offer was turned down, because of worries that if hot water became available, people would take longer showers and deplete the already scarce water supplies.
After spending their mornings on building projects, the missionaries devoted their afternoons to what they considered to be their primary mission: spreading the word of God amongst the roughly 1,000 islanders.
Not everyone was eager to hear their message -- especially adolescent boys -- so they employed techniques including puppets and magic tricks.
"It's not cool to be sitting in the church services if you're a teenage boy," said Robin Little. "They'd stand outside and talk to girls through the windows."
Enter Art Fitchett, a 55-year-old chemist and "gospel magician."
Fitchett demonstrated a couple of his tricks.
One relies on a specially made "Holy Bible," which Fitchett displays while flipping through the pages three times.
The first time -- roughly analogous to a person's understanding of the Bible the first time she reads it -- the pages are blank. The second time, words and pictures flash by in black and white. When Fitchett flips through the pages a third and final time, the images are in color.
Although the group had a rough time getting home after a storm knocked out power at the airport on the neighboring island they were to depart from, all made it home safely.
Diana Mendenhall professed, “as I watched our team board the flight for our long trip home I realized that during our week in Helene, God had been at work in our lives and in the lives that we had touched. We came to construct a building but much more importantly we left the island filled with love for the dear new friends we had come to serve.”
Sue Micale, who is a travel agent when she's not doing missionary work, brought back 40 letters to mail for islanders. She was amazed to see that two were addressed to soldiers stationed at Camp Parks.
"I wouldn't say no," to a return trip next year, said Hal Swanson, a 65-year-old retiree. "It depends on what the Lord has in mind for me."
By Albert H. Lee