Springfield First Baptist Church Pastor Ken Whitt wrote his doctoral dissertation on the importance of short-term mission trips to developing nations.
Time and again, he said, he’s seen Christians from the United States learn that “extremely poor people can be incredibly faithful, very, very generous, and loving and effective in their service.”
As a result, Whitt said, one piece of the world the missions trips change is “the people that go there.”
He saw that happen over holidays on his 13th foreign mission trip, this one to El Salvador with a team of 16 from the First Baptist churches of Springfield and Dayton and Springfield’s St. John Missionary Baptist Church.
The church the team visited in Ahuachapan in the north of country “is doing so much with so little,” said Jordan Copeland, who attends Whitt’s church and was on his second mission to El Salvador. “A lot of what they do is on faith.”
Their time at the Compasivo Dio Baptist Church came after the group helped build a home for the Fuller Institute, an international offshoot of Habitat for Humanity.
During the mission, “mostly I focused on the fact that we’re not that different,” Copeland said. The former South High School basketball star compares the challenges the people there face with “some of the things I’ve been doing with coaching” in Springfield.
In both places, children “have dreams they don’t always know how to accomplish,” he said, “and they need someone believing in what they’re doing” to make those dreams come true.
He added that because of the difficult circumstances in El Salvador, “if you’re pushing to have a better life there, you have to have some serious drive.”
Copeland and his mother, Debbie, were one of three mother-son teams on the trip, arranged after word got out that Whitt was traveling to El Salvador to work with his son on a Fuller house.
Because of advance work done by Diane Ashman, “the best Spanish-speaking person among us,” said Whitt, “they were really ready for the 16 of us to come, including — miracle of miracles — Dr. (James) Duffee” of the Rocking Horse Center medical clinic, and his wife Jill Campbell-Duffee, a registered nurse.
That allowed Whitt, as a pastor, not only to see Duffee “pour his life into these kids and families for two days” but “to watch the whole group, out of nothing, become a medical team.”
After taking a day to clean and repaint the clinic building, the team saw 70 patients each day.
“All the children I saw had parasites,” said Duffee, and many had respiratory problems because of the smoke used for cooking and heat in their homes.
Because of the limited diet, most of the children were undernourished and there’s a lot of adult obesity, he added.
Duffee arrived with the idea of establishing “a sister clinic arrangement,” but concluded there’s not enough infrastructure there to make that work.
“There’s no one to see them,” he said, and even more important than their need for medical care is the need for clean running water and good sewer systems.
Some mission trip members are thinking about how to support a woman at the church who would like to go to nursing school and help in the clinic.
Despite the disappointment, Duffee and others came away impressed by the church’s efforts to meet the community’s other needs: to provide jobs though a church bakery, to work with a farmer’s cooperative to improve practices and secure land, to serve the homeless and to give food to desperate senior citizens.
“And all this without any apparent resources,” said Whitt. “They’re making something out of nothing.”
Although the mission handed out such basics as toothbrushes, toothpaste and school supplies that many people here take for granted, they also were impressed with the spirit of Salvadorans.
“It wasn’t an atmosphere of despair,” said Selena Singletary of the St. John congregation.
“Whenever we would get together for a service, it was a joyful occasion,” she said. “They seemed grateful for what was being provided, but they were also willing to serve us, to help us get around” to do mission work.
Singletary’s friend and Springfield First Baptist member Nancy Flinchbaugh said she’d been on a mission to El Salvador in 1989, and this time, went through the neighborhoods using her Spanish to invite people to the clinics.
She found many houses made of mud, some made of stone and only a few with indoor plumbing or running water. Nor was there much in the way of opportunities, for jobs or anything else.
The father of the family Flinchbaugh stayed with was an electrician who rides his motorcycle to Honduras, works there for eight days, then rides back to spend three days with his family.
But if El Salvador is hard-pressed, Whitt said, it isn’t like Haiti.
It has “a sustainable economy and a sustainable culture,” Whitt said. “You can get by, and a few people can get by in a much more meaningful way.”
Duffee added that although El Salvador has “much less in terms of material goods,” its largely intact families has provided it with “stronger communities.”
Because of a weaker sense of community in poor communities in the United States, he said, “the poverty (here) seems somehow more pervasive.”
Flinchbaugh, who led a contemplative retreat at a serene rain forest lake, said she found the trip spiritual as well.
A reflection she wrote says she saw God in the family she lived with, in the church’s pastor, in the lake, and in the people in the mission group; that she saw Jesus in the suffering through lack of water, poor dental care and limited education; and that, as a result, she is encouraging others “to consider some sort of mission trip to encounter God, to learn (and) to consider more deeply how God may be calling you.”