Some college students spend the winter break going to NCAA football bowl games. Others veg out in front of the television and catch up on Netflix. Others party into the wee hours of the morning. And yet others are very content to spend a couple of weeks at home with their families.
Consider three Kennesaw State University students in Georgia who decided to do something different during the winter break: Benjamin Ryle, a pre-med biology major from Ingleside Baptist Church in Macon; Gracie Camp, a middle grades education major from Rosemont Baptist Church in LaGrange; and Hope Godwin, a major in communications and member of Ephesus Baptist Church in Winston.
This collegiate trio decided to respond to the invitation of the North American Mission Board and go to Los Angeles to minister through the agency’s Send Relief effort in the nation’s second largest city.
The greater Los Angeles area has a population of more than 18 million people with more than 400 people groups and where more than nine out of every 10 people do not know the gospel. The KSU trio were paired with a team from a Baptist Campus Ministry in Arkansas to make whatever contribution they could to bring the huge metropolis a bit more in line with its nickname – City of Angels.
‘God was already moving’
Godwin explained, “From the moment our team landed in Los Angeles, we felt God was already moving. Our biggest prayer in approaching our mission was that God would use us for His glory and that the hearts of the people to whom we would be ministering would be receptive to the gospel.”
The mission team stayed near the heart of Los Angeles in the LA City Baptist Church in Boyle Heights, which also doubles as a ministry center for Send Relief. The Georgia mission team considered it a special privilege to be the first ministry group to be housed in this facility.
Boyle Heights is a 98% Hispanic community with a Korean pastor, Min Lee. The Boyle Heights area is known for the human trafficking of minors. The ministry center has been renovated to provide a refuge for vulnerable children and teens who are targeted by those who would prey upon them for their own devious purposes.
After a day of orientation and hearing from multiple missionaries, the students from Kennesaw State were ready to permeate the city with the message of Christ. The first responsibility was to work with the team from Arkansas to serve meals, distribute clothing and express genuine love to the children in the Boyle Heights community.
The mission team then assisted the church in providing a simulated walk through Bethlehem to a live nativity scene, explaining along the way the true meaning of Christmas to each guest.
The children met angels who announced the birth of the Messiah, sang carols and were permitted to hold the gifts that the wise men brought to the Christ child. Godwin stated, “As we walked through the various scenes, we told them about the significance of the incarnation, and as we told the story in English, the children were able to translate the story into Spanish for their parents. This was truly a surreal experience — to see the children with their childlike wonder share the story of the Christ child with their parents.”
Ryle reported, “For many of the children and their parents this was the first time they had heard how God Himself put on flesh and came to earth to die for our sins. They could not quite understand why we would come all the way across the country to help serve meals, distribute clothing and minister to them with the love of Christ.
After the Christmas “tour” and a special “Youth Night” service with celebratory songs and a gospel message, the student missionaries and the church’s guests gathered around fire pits in the church parking lot to roast marshmallows and make s’mores. This provided the opportunity for one-on-one conversations. Gracie and Hope had the privilege of talking to two teenagers, Jocelyne and Chloe. They were self-effacing at first but soon began to communicate, and all barriers were removed, Instagram accounts were shared and God used the missionaries to speak truth into the hearts of their new friends.
On the next day the missionary team went to an area called Skid Row. The image of this place of squalor and degradation left an indelible impression on Godwin, who commented, “Many of these people were homeless, addicted to drugs and looked exhausted, mentally unstable and physically filthy and unkempt. However, we soon found out that the slightest bit of attention given to these pitiable souls went a long way.”
Ryle added, “It is easy to think of Los Angeles as a place where prosperity flourishes, but on this mission expedition we also discovered poverty-stricken communities where the destitute people are not just a demographic, but precious souls in need of a Savior.”
‘Salt and light’
“As a Christian, I have been in a middle-class church bubble with only a few exposures to extreme need,” he said. “However, on this trip I realized that Jesus generally ministered to ‘the least of these.’ That is what we, as Christians, need to do. Jesus charged us to be ‘salt and light.’ How can we be salt to arrest the corruption around us, and how can we be the most effective light if we are not willing to shine in the darkest of places. I am not sure what my sub-calling under the Great Commission is, but I don’t want to miss out on it, and I want to live for Christ first, no matter what career God leads me to embrace.”
Camp avowed, “I thought I was prepared for this part of our mission, but when I got to Skid Row, I was overwhelmed. There was so much need around us. This day completely changed my life; my eyes were opened to the critical needs of the world around me.
“Sometimes I have wondered why people suffer and why so many people go through tragedies of all descriptions, but in LA I saw how God was at work through his people to meet the needs of the downtrodden and broken people and how much God wants to have a relationship with them.”
The Georgia Baptist college students worked with Set Free Church, on Skid Row passing out food and clothes with compassion. Godwin remarked, “As we served alongside the people from Set Free Church those to whom we ministered came alive, their eyes were bright and their smiles were even brighter.
“The pastor of Set Free Church sat on top of a speaker in the middle of the street and used a microphone to pray for the people and proclaim the name of Jesus. The pastor offered those who heard his message the opportunity to get in a van to be taken to a place to be rehabilitated, learn more about Christ and get back on their feet, but sadly most walked away choosing their drugs and the familiarity of life on the streets of Skid Row.”
Godwin continued, “As we left Skid Row, Darryl Speers, who also works with NAMB’s Send Relief, explained, ‘While we want you to see people saved while you are here, we also want to make sure that you are given the opportunity to serve and learn.’”
The next morning was Sunday, and Pastor Lee of LA City Church had asked Gracie and Hope if they would sing for the congregation that morning. “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” were the carols they selected. While they sang “Silent Night”, an elderly Hispanic woman stood and passionately sang “Noche de paz, noche de amor” (Night of Peace, Night of Love). The singing duo rejoiced to note that Jocelyn had come back to the church to hear them sing. The Korean pastor preached a message in both English and Spanish and baptized a new convert. Everyone cheered as the new believer was raised up out of the water.
The mission trip included a visit to the University of Southern California where Gracie, Benjamin and Hope met a young lady named Maddie, who played on the women’s basketball team. She was suffering with a back injury. She was a Christian but admitted that Christianity was denigrated at USC and very few were even open to talking about it. The mission team prayed over her and the university and asked God to provide healing for her back and for the stigma associated with Christianity not to hinder her walking with Jesus and sharing His love.
Hope stated, “When I got home, I reached back out to Maddie to see how she was doing, and she told me that her back was much better.”
The three KSU missionaries finally had a free day but decided to go to the Church of Scientology on Hollywood Boulevard to learn and see if there was anyone who would talk to them. They met a woman who had been in the Church of Scientology for 20 years, and Gracie walked her through the gospel and told her exactly what it means. They prayed that the presentation of the gospel would burn in her heart and cause her to seek God for herself.
A broken world
Ryle indicated that on the last day in Los Angeles the KSU mission team went to Iglesias El Nuevo Nacimiento (the New Birth Church) where he met a man pushing a cart. “I spoke to him,” stated Ryle, “and since I was an unfamiliar face, he responded with a defensive posture and an expression of extreme caution. His name was Roberto. He was 65 years old and had been living in LA all his life. After learning more about him, I asked him what he thought about the brokenness of the world. Together we concluded that because of drugs, alcohol, sexual temptations and other sins, the world is a very broken place.
“He confessed to me he had struggled with all those things, and he explained that none of them had brought satisfaction to his soul. I asked him if he knew Jesus, and he said that he knew about Him and even quoted some passages of Scripture. He admitted that he knew he was doing wrong but said he didn’t want to repent.”
Ryle continued, “As Christians it is easy to put sins into two categories: the ones that are obvious to others and the ones that we hide from everyone. We try to handle the ones people can see, but never talk about or even try to turn from the ones people can’t see. Although Roberto chose not to repent, he was not lying to himself about his sinful condition. In that regard, we need to be more like Roberto.”
Ryle continued to witness to Roberto, telling him of God’s love, grace and eternal provision for the redeemed and exclaimed, “The Holy Spirit must have been working, because he began to cry. I do not know what Roberto did after our conversation, but my prayer is that he felt conviction from God like he had never felt before and that he will submit his life to Christ.”
Mission expeditions are generally designed to bless those who are recipients of the ministry and message presented by those to go as ambassadors for Christ, but more often than not, the volunteer missionaries receive the greatest blessings.
Hope Godwin explained, “Yes, we were on a mission trip, but for me it was also a vision trip to help me discover what God wants for my life after college. God broke my heart for the people of Los Angeles, but upon returning home I became even more aware of the homelessness and human trafficking in Atlanta. Just pray that God would continually move in our hearts and that we would be in tune with whatever He wants us to do.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by J. Gerald Harris, and originally appeared in The Christian Index, the newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.