Mission work unites disparate communities
By Kerri Bartlett, Assistant Editor
At first, Amanda Hyssong, Centennial High graduate and freshman at University of Tampa, didn’t want to go on a mission trip.
“I was scared and didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But people from my church talked me into it.”
Now a veteran of the Mountain T.O.P (Tennessee Outreach Project), a mission camp established in Grundy County, Tn. in the 1970s, Hyssong can barely remember that apprehensive feeling.
For the past five summers, she has ventured away from the comfort of the state’s wealthiest county to one of Tennessee’s poorest areas.
“It changed my life,” Hyssong said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of new things that I had not been exposed to.”
A few churches in Williamson County made it a priority to reach out to —both rural and urban—poverty-stricken communities. One, closer to home, was less than a two-hour drive to the Cumberland Mountains. Another trip took a bus full of youth across two states.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s mission supported remote Grundy County, while Brentwood Baptist Church’s outreach focused on the crime-ridden Garfield Park in Chicago.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Mission:
The reality of rural poverty struck Hyssong when a camper told her that she couldn’t wait for lunch because she was “so hungry.”
“When I asked if she had breakfast she told me, ‘I never get breakfast. I only eat lunch.’ It occurred to me how much we were helping because we were providing a meal—one of the only meals that this child would eat all day.”
Situated in the Cumberland Mountains and almost forgotten according to some, many residents in Grundy live below the national poverty level. The Mountain T.O.P. project, founded by Blake Bass of Blakemore United Methodist Church in Nashville, works to meet the physical, social, spiritual and emotional needs of the people on the mountain. Mission activities could include repairing homes, interacting with children in day camps and simply connecting with lonely people.
Hyssong said that the experience opened her eyes to the poverty in her own state. “When I told people I was going on a mission trip, they asked ‘what country.’ But there is poverty in our own backyard.”
Touched by her experiences, Hyssong wanted to do more at home.
Yearning to make a difference, Hyssong enrolled in a “service learning” class at CHS in which she volunteered at Liberty Elementary School as part of the Franklin Special School District Food Service program that provides weekend food to those in need.
“I knew that if there was poverty in Grundy, in our own state, then there must be poverty close to home in Williamson too, and I wanted to help,” Hyssong said.
Food is not the only shortage in Grundy County Hyssong said.
“Mountain T.O.P. is one of the only summer activities for kids. If it weren’t for the human interaction and refining of fine motor skills and other activities that stimulate learning, they might be further behind when school starts.”
Spoken like a future educator.
Mountain T.O.P. helped Hyssong discover her professional interest—to be a special education teacher. To that end, she leaves next week for Florida to begin her freshman year of college.
“If I had not gone on the trip, I don’t think I would have discovered how much I want to help. Not just teaching children but going to those in need and helping them get the food, supplies and learning that they need,” she explained. “I feel like I was really making a difference and doing something important.”
Brentwood Baptist Church Mission:
Coined the “Devil’s Playground,” Garfield Park in Chicago’s inner-city, which holds one of the highest crime rates in the nation, marked the spot of Brentwood Baptist Church’s (BBC) mission work this summer.
“It’s one of the most dangerous areas in the country with drugs, drug lords and prostitution,” said Aaron Kunz, 23, a student ministry intern at Brentwood Baptist Church. “It’s easy to look at everything going on and think that nothing can be done.”
However, the church’s mission strives to bring light to the darkness, and Kunz has been a dedicated volunteer and intern on the trip for four years. This year, he served as a leader and one of the organizers.
Brentwood Baptist has worked over ten years to establish a partner church in Chicago called Reborn Community Church (RCC).
For one week each summer, up to 116 volunteers have traveled to this volatile urban area to conduct vacation Bible school at the church.
Amy-Jo Girardier, BBC’s girl’s minister/student mission’s coordinator, considers this trip an integral part of her life, after traveling to the same community for ten years. She also maintains an ongoing partnership between the churches, and frequently converses with Garfield Park resident and RCC Pastor Jamie Thompson of Reborn Community Church.
“They are like family now,” Girardier said.
For Kunz, the experience has been profound.
“The contrast is like night and day,” said Kunz. “We live in a bubble in Williamson County. We have this idea that where we live is normal, but it’s not the real world in other places.”
“It’s incredible for students to recognize the world outside of where we live and the parts that need to be reached.”
The group became attached to a young man, now 16 years old, a camper at the church since age six.
“It has been incredible to see him grow up and break the cycle of no father, no role model, just gangs and drug lords —to be free of that world.”
Kunz said the young man still attends Reborn Community Church and has a job.
“He is establishing himself as a man,” Kunz said.
“It has been most impactful to continue to see growth in the church community and light shined in the darkness.”
Posted on: 8/14/2013