I have used this quote by St. Teresa of Avila numerous times in youth ministry. It captures the essence of why we, as Catholics, are called to lifelong service. But how do we do this? How do we become Jesus’ hands and feet here on earth? And for those of us who work with youth, how do we light that fire within them to create disciples who serve others like Jesus did?
As we approach the season of spring breaks and the opportunity for alternative spring break experiences, I will tell anyone who asks me about youth ministry that mission trips are the single most effective experiences for a young person to see the face of Jesus in those they serve and in each other.
During the summer of 2013, my youth group traveled to Appalachia, and we worked at several sites. Over years of going on mission trips, I have witnessed much poverty and neglect. One home we worked in this summer was so roach-infested and filthy that it was overwhelming for many of the youth. They couldn’t understand how someone could live in those conditions. However, in talking with the young mother who lived there, we learned her story of sexual abuse as a child, living on the streets starting at the age of 14, numerous pregnancies, and years of drug abuse. She had turned her life around in the past few years, was drug free, and started attending church. She shared her story openly with us, and the youth were deeply touched. While we didn’t understand everything about the situation, we saw Jesus that day in this woman, and we knew we were serving Him.
Mission trips are often challenging and can test your resolve. At the end of one such trip, we had an evening of prayer and reflection. The leaders then went to each youth in their group and kneeling before them, shared the gifts they saw in that youth and washed their feet. We all ended up crying, hugging, and laughing through our tears, and it was a moment of grace that I will never forget. You could feel the Holy Spirit at work among us, and we were all changed that evening. I truly believe we all discovered the meaning of discipleship, of being in relationship with each other, just as Christ is in relationship with us.
Why do mission trips count? I don’t think moments like these will ever be forgotten by the youth who experienced them. This is why mission trips are so valuable. I can talk to the youth about being the hands and feet of Jesus and about working for justice, but nothing shows them this better than the actual “doing” of mission work. By getting out of their comfort zone and living out their baptismal call to serve others on mission trips, they come to truly understand what it means to be Christ’s body here on earth.
Kathy Williams is a candidate in the Masters of Theology program through LIMEX/Loyola University of New Orleans. She is a youth minister at Immaculate Conception Parish, LaGrange, Ky., a graphic designer, and a social media communicator. For more information about youth ministry programs in the Archdiocese of Louisville, check with the Office of Lifelong Formation and Education’s youth ministry department at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502/448-8581.