What started as a program for the youth of the First Congregational Church UCC, in Dalton, Massachusetts, turned into a mission project for the whole community and an opportunity to show love to neighbors almost 600 miles away.
Many local churches offer mission trips for their members -- some arranged specifically for the youth of the church, or families who can serve together. Dalton FCC, however, widened their outreach by inviting other churches in their area and to the community in general to join them on their mission trips.
“It just makes sense to offer the opportunity of spreading the news of being Jesus’ hands and feet and loving your neighbor to whomever would like to participate,” said Beth O'Connor, Youth Mission Coordinator & Moderator for FCC Dalton. “Our congregation is declining in numbers and the greater population that does attend averages 50+ in age, so inviting the willing and able from any congregation is a logical decision.”
As a result, this program has built up to 40 youth and adults over the past two years -- made up of members of the UCC and other denominations, as well as folks outside the church – to help serve the most challenging sections of Detroit through the Second Mile Center. (The church has added an additional mission trip this past year to West Virginia serving with the Appalachia Service Project.)
By reaching out to the community, FCC Dalton broadened its ability to raise funds and created teams of diverse people. FCC Dalton plans the trip, but the neighboring churches – including Catholic, Nazarene, Methodist, Episcopal and other local Congregational churches -- support the program by offering monies or sponsoring their youth.
“The Greater Dalton Area Clergy Commission has fostered great collaboration and participation between our Churches,” said Fr. Chris Malatesta of the St. Agnes Catholic Community, Camp Holy Cross. “My experience has been that it is natural for our churches to work together for the greater good. The mission outreach project is a wonderful opportunity for our students to realize when we work hand in hand with our neighbors out of love for Jesus that we truly bring His love to the world. We are happy to support this work that brings helpful hands into a community that can benefit from our help.”
“Mission has always been at the heart of what we do at FCC,” said The Rev. Henry M. Pascual, pastor of FCC Dalton. “Whether it is through the food pantry, the Sunday lunch, the ladies who knit shawls, the thrift store that provides inexpensive clothes or the summer youth mission, our church members understand that they are called to live and act the love and compassion of God in the community in which they live and beyond racial and cultural boundaries.”
To help finance the trips, the church youth write letters to area businesses, community groups, friends and family requesting support, explaining in detail what they will be doing on the trip. Also, a service is held each year that offers testimonies from the participants and highlights the work that was done during the trip. O’Connor explained that the service really brings home the need for mission work because people see where their money and prayers go.
“We work hard on these trips and expect the kids and adults to not just show up but give their heart and soul away for a week and live the experience,” she said. “The stories and experiences we bring home with us and share with the community shows there is no doubt that we are always changed for the better after serving.”
O’Connor considers the youth and adults who attend these trips as wonderful representatives and their stories help with the financial support for the following year; their stories are powerful and help the community and financial supporters realize the need for the program.
FCC Dalton was fortunate to have had a member start a trust for the program in which the interest is used to fund the trip, with a requirement that the trip be outside the state to give the youth a different perspective. It costs participants $50 each, but each year the church raises close to $20,000 to to help cover any shortage in travel costs for the volunteers and to purchase items needed by the community (construction materials, food for community meals, school supplies, shoes for children, etc.).
When O’Connor and her family wanted to go on a mission trip many years ago, there was no program at her own church, so they joined a group through the Massachusetts Conference. They came home from that trip so inspired that they restarted mission outreach for the youth of their own church. O’Connor’s daughter is now an ICU nurse and says her mission trips inspired her to help others.
Charlotte Crane, one of the chaperones on the Detroit trip, believes the group has built a strong relationship with the Second Mile Center. “I really enjoy seeing the bond grow each year between our kids and the kids at the center. It speaks volumes to see these kids, from very different places and backgrounds, pick things up right where they left off. The have respect and compassion for one another regardless of who they are, and I think the rest of the world could do with a little more of that.”
Another chaperone, David Bartels, who had attended mission trips when he was younger, said he was always impressed with the drive and passion of those on the mission trips. “It is truly amazing to see how much heart and love and soul is given by our youth. They give so much of themselves; I know that they will carry these experiences with them wherever life takes them. There was not a dry eye when we said our goodbyes on our last day.”
“It is so inspiring to see how this program has blossomed,” said O’Connor. “Being able to pull in youth and adults of all backgrounds from all over our community has made us realize that we all have a common goal to love one another, and that everyone is equal in God's eyes regardless of one’s home address.”
Visit the Massachusetts Conference Mission Work Opportunities page for news and available resources.
You can reach Beth O'Connor, Youth Mission Coordinator & Moderator for FCC Dalton at the church office at 413-684-1715 or email email@example.com