Shannon Jarrell knows that in the future she’s going to think twice before forming an opinion about someone.
That new attitude is something she brought home from a mission trip to Oklahoma City when nine members of the Morenci Church of the Nazarene youth group went to work with the homeless.
“The thing that got me the most,” said Brooke Baumgartner, “is how much we judge homeless people. Really they’re the same as us, but they have so much less.”
Possessions were in the minds of everyone when they returned home to Morenci.
Danny Hunt put it in simple terms: “I have stuff; they don’t.”
The Oklahoma City visit was nothing new to Nazarene youth pastor Dillan Ketcham. It’s a trip he’s taken before.
“I went on that trip when I was 14 years old, 10 years ago,” said the Indiana native.
Planning for the trip started in November and fund-raising projects got underway in January. It was finally time to board the church bus last month for the long drive to Oklahoma.
The kids got their first taste of another world on their initial work experience—cleaning out a pair of transitional houses. The homes once served as halfway houses for recovering drug addicts, but the structures had fallen into disrepair and were used by homeless people. With new shelter arranged for homeless individuals, two houses were cleaned out by the Morenci youths. Other groups would arrive later to tear out carpet and begin renovation.
“They were just horrid,” Dillan said, and it was an experience that stuck with everyone even after their return. “It took a while before I stopped looking around for cockroaches on the walls.”
“There’s no way to even describe it,” Korin Baumgartner said.
Chloe Molitierno talked about finding a two-foot tall crawl space with a make-shift bed inside. The kids were staring poverty in the face.
Even as the contents of the homes were taken to the curb, neighborhood residents were looking through the trash to find something useful.
It was disgusting work, Dillan said, but the kids pitched right in and got the job done. They didn’t need to be told what to do.
“They wanted to be there and they wanted to help,” he said. “I was very impressed with our group.”
On the second day, the volunteers helped arrange food and supplies in a large warehouse owned by Love Link Ministries—the organization that oversees visiting youth groups.
The following day Morenci’s kids had their first contact with homeless people when they served meals at the Compassion Center and at the First Indian Church of the Nazarene.
The youths unloaded 9,000 pounds of food and sorted items to be taken to a thrift store that helps fund the food program.
“The most eye-opening day for me was the day we visited the homeless camps,” Gabi Acuña said.
A local guide took the kids through abandoned industrial property and along a path into a woods to a collection of makeshift shelters.
“Seeing people living in ‘tents’ propped up against trees was very moving,” Gabi said. “It showed me a side of poverty I’d never seen before.”
Contact with homeless individuals brought out some interesting stories. Generally it was a tale of drug and alcohol addiction, but that wasn’t always the case. A few were born into homelessness—there were even some third generation cases—and some were leading normal lives until “the event” arrived. Loss of job, loss of home, mental or physical illness, injury, divorce—the reasons are varied.
“I have never experienced people in such distress before,” Gabi said. “It was hard to witness.”
“I think most of them want to change themselves and improve their lives. They don’t like the situations they’re in.” Shannon said. “If they stick with God and keep going to church....”
Dillan thinks many people will escape from homelessness. There are plenty of success stories, he said, people who have been helped through the church.
The trip made such an impact that Korin said she felt as though she was experiencing culture shock when she returned.
“I’m just thankful to have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in,” Bladen Mellon said.
Shannon thought about the people she left behind when she went shopping with her mother on the day she returned home.
“Here we are buying all this stuff and half of these people don’t even have a dollar,” she said.
“We stress out over things like getting the laundry done,” Dillan said. “They just want something to cover themselves with. It’s two different worlds and it makes ours seem a lot more petty.”
We hear about people starving in Africa or China, Shannon said, but it’s also right here in America.
“The hardest part about leaving was knowing we still had so much to do,” Korin said. “We planted a lot of seeds.”
The experience was something everyone should have at least once, the kids agreed, and they would certainly do it again. However, the kids also talked about what they might do at home.
“There is so much we could do here, as well,” Gabi said. “For example, opening a thrift store, expanding our food pantry, or even having community dinners.”
There’s certainly a lot her generation takes for granted, she said, but at least for now, these youngsters are thinking more about what they have.