Reflections from Benton Harbor

Six Corpus Christi youth and four adult leaders went on a mission trip in July. During their week away, they served in the community of Benton Harbor, Michigan by volunteering in a children’s garden, packing food, painting, and volunteering at a thrift store. While traveling to and from Benton Harbor, they visited Indiana Dunes National Park, celebrated Mass at University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, kayaked on the Paw Paw River, and visited downtown Chicago. Below are reflections from the youth and new Director of Lifelong Faith Formation from their week of serving, learning, and growing.

     
     

Natalie Kors
My name is Natalie and this was my first time going on a mission trip. This was also the biggest trip I’ve been on and I’m very glad that this was my first big trip. I learned so many things about myself and about other communities.

Starting this trip, I was a little nervous because I only knew two people, but now I’m so grateful that I went because I got to know so many wonderful people. Whether it was by personally talking to them or just being around them. One of the things that impacted me the most was when some members of our group bought a bag of dog food for one of the community members because he was running out and low on money. They got to talk to him for a long time and heard all about his stories. A lot of other people got to experience the same thing and it makes me very happy knowing that we made a difference. Even if it wasn’t a big difference to the whole world, it was a big difference for that one person.

Going home I’m definitely realizing that there’s a lot more that I can do for my community. Also just talking to more people and getting to know their stories more and hearing about them. This trip definitely changed me for the better and I’m very thankful that I got to go.

Molly Russell
I’m Molly Russell and I’m going into 9th grade. Many of you might know I’m Liz Russell’s daughter. I’ve heard vague things about mission trips for a long time, but I was always told they were a great experience. This year’s mission trip was my first. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but the entire trip was epic and very special.

The main theme at YouthWorks this year was being neighbors. Not in proximity, but how Jesus wanted us all to think of each other. I saw many people on the trip, participants and community members, being neighbors to others. One person in particular was Jerry. Jerry was the guide on our walking tour of Benton Harbor. He grew up in Benton Harbor, then left for a while. When he came back, the community was different. He knew he had to stay in Benton Harbor to help his neighbors there. He started by trying to get city hall to put in four new swings. It took four years until they got those swings. Now, Jerry is a city commissioner. While he talked about Benton Harbor, you could tell how much he loved it. He waved at almost everyone who drove by. He was very connected to the community and many people there. He was a neighbor to everyone he met.

Going home, I hope to be the kind of neighbor Jesus wanted and remember this experience forever. Thank you for your support and prayers that made this trip possible.

Ritah Karanja
This was my first ever mission trip I have ever been on, and it was amazing. I didn’t have any expectations coming into this mission trip because there wasn’t anything to compare it to, so I started off with an open mind. I spent most of my attention learning more about the people in my church. Because of COVID, we were not as able to interact with other church groups as others said they have before.

I got to new meet people like Nicole, Natalie, Britta, and Scott, and I got to learn more about people I already knew, like Josie, Molly, Ellie, Evie, and Liz. At our work sites, we spent a ton of time talking with each other and getting to learn more about each other. I got to learn more about Nicole and how she used to be really involved with Corpus Christi before she moved and how incredibly kind she is. I got to meet Natalie, who is Molly’s best friend, and I got to see her spunky personality. I met Britta, who is Josie’s mom, and I got to see how kind and loving she is. I met Scott who gave us super fun riddles to solve and also gave us advice on how to get closer to God.

Throughout the week I was able to see how kind and thoughtful Josie and Ellie are and how strong their connection to God is. Since Molly and I did Give & Grin together before, I was able to get the time to get to know her better, instead of just seeing her once a week over the summer. Evie and I were already pretty close since we are in faith formation together and also got confirmed together, but we have never spent a whole week with each other and it was both chaotic but super fun. Liz has been around my church life for a long time, I can’t even remember when she wasn’t there. She helped me grow in my faith and helped me find things to do like Give & Grin to help serve our community. But this week I got to spend more time with her, she got to learn more about me and I got to learn more about her.

This mission trip really helped me learn more about our church community. I really encourage you all to at least go on one mission trip in your life, you will be able to grow, or find, new fun relationships with others.

Evie Ankrum
My name is Evelyn Ankrum and I’m going into my junior year of high school. I wanted to share how the 2021 mission trip to Benton Harbor Michigan has impacted me. We were supposed to go serve in Benton Harbor last year but that didn’t work out because of the COVID pandemic. So, I had been very excited about going on this trip for a long time.

This has been my first mission trip and I now count it among one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I enjoyed connecting with the people of Benton Harbor through serving them in a variety of different ways including house projects, working in a community garden, packing food and sorting at a second-hand shop. I noticed how everyone seemed so happy and appreciative that our group was there to serve and help out the community.

One thing that surprised me was how tight knit the community of Benton Harbor is and how everyone sort of looks out and cares for one another. One of my favorite parts about the trip was hearing different people’s stories. I found it very interesting and humbling to meet and get to know people who had such drastically different experiences than myself.

A part of the trip that I’m beyond grateful for, is the relationships I have made with the other group members from Corpus Christi. Spending large amounts of time with people in close confines can be very difficult at times and I was appreciative of the understanding we all formed. Towards the end of the week, my group got good at making frequent check-ins with each other and asking what the other person needs. I found that very helpful especially on the nights where I got less than an acceptable amount of sleep.

I consider this as a very formative experience in my life and I do feel like a changed person afterwards. It’s difficult for me to put into words the way this mission trip has changed me but I do know that I feel a renewed commitment to be active and present in Corpus Christi. I can’t express how grateful I am for the opportunity to have gone on this inspiring mission trip. I’d like to thank the Corpus parishioners for all of the support and prayers for this trip. Thank you.

Josie Gale
This years’ mission trip to Benton Harbor, Michigan is definitely one I am going to remember for the rest of my life. This was my third mission trip with Corpus Christi and I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything — especially this year. This mission trip allowed me to dive deeper into my faith while also diving deeper into the community of Benton Harbor. I was able to learn about the history of Benton Harbor along with St. Joseph and why the two communities are the way they are. We spent the majority of the trip in Benton Harbor doing our service projects and interacting with the community of Benton Harbor. On some evenings we would go into St. Joseph for evening activities and the visual differences of the two communities was heartbreaking to me. St. Joseph has smooth roads, sidewalks, flowers, elaborate shopping centers whereas Benton Harbor is the complete opposite. It was hard for me to understand why one community is so privileged and one is barely making it as a community. I didn’t get my answers until I was able to interact with community members.

The first community member I met was named Earnest. He had ridden his bike down to the food warehouse to get his free food and wasn’t able to bring the three boxes back to his house because he couldn’t fit them on his bike. We offered to drive the boxes to his house. When we got to his house, he was dripping sweat and was exhausted as it was a 90+ degree day. But that didn’t matter. He called his fiancé right away to let her know that he was able to get the food. Despite how tired and exhausted he was, he never failed to show US kindness. He introduced us to his family and told us his rehab story. Earnest was able to turn his life around for his fiancé and his family, and the pride he took in that was admirable. I will never forget Earnest, who is now married, he and his fiancé got married on Friday.

The second community member I met was named Jerry. He was born in Benton Harbor, left for a while, and then came back years later. When he came back, he was appalled at how the local parks didn’t have safe playground equipment for kids to play on. He battled for three years in order to get rubber swings, safe chains, and bolts in order to make swings for children. I was shocked that it took him three years to obtain these items that we all take for granted at our parks. He is now heading an organization called BEYOU to help kids of Benton Harbor stay safe on and off the streets. His grit and determination were inspiring and he taught me to never give up on fighting for the things that I believe in.

The third community member I met was named Ronald Johnson (Olly Ron for short). I met Olly Ron at the thrift store we were volunteering at. He is a street minister and founded the organization IMPACT. This organization teaches young people about scripture and the deeper meaning that it has. He talked to my mom and I about his life story and he shared how he has saved many people’s lives by either intervening between them and a police officer by deescalating the situation or by talking with someone on the street and sharing his wisdom. Those people on the street that Olly Ron shared his wisdom with always come back to him thanking them for their life because they were going to commit suicide, but Olly Ron’s words gave them hope and a reason to live. I loved everything about Olly Ron. His smile, his laugh, the passion in his eyes when he was talking about his ministry. Olly Ron is probably the most impactful person I met on the trip because he taught me that I CAN make a difference in people’s lives. And I DO have the power to make a difference in my own as well.

The one thing these three wonderful people all have in common is that they have all gone through hardships, but they have turned their life around not because that have to, but because they want to. They want to be able to get married, they want to be able to watch their community grow, they want to be able to save other people with just their words. One other thing they have in common is that they never once spoke ill of Benton Harbor. They love their community and they have worked hard to make it what it is today and they are still working hard to improve it even more.

I learned so much on this mission trip — about myself, about the community of Benton Harbor, and about the community members of Benton Harbor. I learned to love more deeply, pray more faithfully, and connect more willingly. I was tested, strengthened, inspired, and blessed all at the same time. I am so grateful I got to spend my week in Benton Harbor and I couldn’t think of any better way to spend my week than serving others, listening to their stories, and growing closer to God. I am truly blessed that I get opportunities like this and these weeks will stay with me for as long as I live.

 

Scott Kieffer, Director of Lifelong Faith Formation
What an incredible trip it was! The people, the work, the community, the prayers… it was a fast-moving whirlwind of really positive things.

The community of Benton Harbor was often the focus, as we lived, worked, played and prayed in the small beachside town. We got to know many of the locals and their diverse stories. Some had been struggling, like Ernest, who had just finished a long stint of overcoming personal issues. He shared how determined he had been to get right before he got married later that week. Others were helping those who struggle, like local town hero Jerry. His simple goal of fixing four swings ended up in City Hall, where he serves now as commissioner (and fixes more than just swings).

The work we did was just as varied. We helped at the food bank that serves four local counties, along with a community garden that provides fresh produce to the locals. The teens especially loved a day working at a thrift store that supports “fresh start” initiatives. And a few days were outdoor work projects, helping to fix up or refresh the homes of local advocates. With their exhaustive schedules (of trying to help their neighbors in Benton Harbor), these were “good Samaritans” who simply didn’t save the time to help themselves too.

Then there were the other churches alongside us at the “home base” YouthWorks facility. Five other churches (of four different denominations) were there, doing similar projects around town and joining us in prayer and fun activities. Our teens wanted to make a point of befriending these groups (not letting the covid protocols and masked faces prevent them from making new friends). A few jokes and smiles were enough to connect with Friendship Church in Illinois, and some games and riddles gave us a shared connection with Almont Church from Michigan. By the final night we were spending almost as much of our free time with them as with each other!

For me, as important and rewarding as all of those were – and they definitely were – the true highlight was still the time with God and with our parishioners. Praying with them on the beach, or while watching a sunset over the lighthouse, were impactful God-moments that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The peace and serenity I found there, both in nature and in such a down-to-earth community, made the long tiring days possible.

And none of it would have felt as meaningful or as joy-filled without the 9 other Corpus Christi members, only one of whom I had met before we left. They were a quiet bunch at first, but conversations about movies, solving long riddles together, and some intense beach volleyball helped break the ice (at least for me). A week later, and I can’t imagine not knowing these amazing people. The selfless outreach of Britta and the constant compassion of Nicole (both adult leaders) were instrumental for our group – our teens wouldn’t have had nearly the same experience without all the gifts they shared so tirelessly. Our leader Liz made it clear why so many in the parish love and respect her, with her constant laughter and smiles, her gentle pushing/motivating of our group, and the calm wisdom she shared at just the right moments.

The teens each brought a different dynamic as well, and each was a piece of the puzzle we needed.

The kindness of Molly and the bubbly joy of Natalie kept us smiling, while Ellie reached out (in her quiet, caring way) whenever she saw someone struggling. Ritah brought energy, curiosity, and a natural way of connecting with people. Shout out to Josie – after 11 years of training and developing a lot of great teen leaders, I thought I’d seen it all. But she constantly impressed me with her humble, Christ-like leading of her peers. And a personal thanks to Evie for being first to make me feel like a valued part of the group, even if I was the new guy (and I didn’t mind the healthy dose of sarcasm in the process).

If I am being honest, it was daunting for me to go on a trip as my second day of work at Corpus Christi, especially after some personal challenges the last month or so (which meant I would barely sleep throughout the trip). But I love mission trips, retreats, camps – anything that pulls us from the ordinary, and helps us connect with God and each other in extraordinary ways. So as exhausted as I knew I would be, I couldn’t imagine missing this trip and the great experience with our parishioners.

There were certainly some “first day nerves” too – hoping to both fit in with the group, and to be a great leader. Along with some questions about what kind of people I would meet. Would our teens be disconnected, apathetic, or stuck in cliques? Would they be like the outside groups I have seen (far too often) who grumble, and only saw the trip as a chance for a cheap vacation? I volunteered a week earlier with another faith camp, helping one night with an “average” group of teens, and felt the difference between them and the groups I was used to.

I had a few options for my new parish home, and chose Corpus Christi because of the promise and potential of its people. The Mission Trip week was an extended look for me, at whether I made the right choice. So more than anything, what stood out to me in Benton Harbor was how relieved I was to be surrounded by such great people, who welcomed me so warmly.

Between the long car-ride conversations, the fun sites, the laughter and games… there were a lot of memorable moments. There was also a camaraderie forged through the service, the prayer and the sense of purpose. By the second night, one of the teens had already referred to us as “our new little family,” and that felt right.

So for now… I just want to say that I am proud of the work our group did, of the way they grew, and of the kind of people they are.

And I feel so very blessed to have joined “the family.”

 

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