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Teen camp workers make Cedar Springs their mission

by Rev. Laurie TenHave-Chapman

This youth group from First Congregational United Church of Christ in Rockford is part of the group working this week on homes in Cedar Springs.

Cedar Springs has been overrun this week by an army of mission camp workers. Nearly 200 high schoolers from around the nation descended on the Cedar Springs Middle School Sunday afternoon, ready for a week of labor. 

GROUP Youth Ministry leads these work camps each summer, transforming local schools into dormitories. These young people are members of church youth groups. Each has raised money to make the trek to our neck of the woods to be of good service to our neighbors. They will be sent out each day in teams to accomplish specific tasks. There will be nearly twenty-five homes that receive free repairs and renovation. Under the guidance of adult chaperones and GROUP staff members, ramps will be built, homes and decks painted, and yards landscaped. Most of the home owners have health and/or financial challenges that make home maintenance demanding. So, smiling youth show up at each work site, ready to learn some skills and make a difference in the life of the resident.

This Cedar Springs work camp started as a dream. But the beginning vision was very different from the end product—that’s how we know that God is in charge. God embraces our ideas for doing good then asks us to surrender our plans for something even better! Joe Berlin is a member of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Rockford. For many summers, he has worked as a staff member at one of GROUP’s work camps. Joe and his two sons went on a GROUP mission trip about ten years ago and he became a passionate advocate for this powerful model for community outreach. Nearly two years ago he approached leaders of smaller churches in this area, telling them about GROUP workcamps and offering financial scholarships to any of their youth who would like to attend. Most politely told him they already had plans in place for their young people. His willingness to underwrite this experience for other youth groups fell flat. But what might have seemed like an ending was actually a beginning.

In conversation with staff members at GROUP, the idea was born that maybe Cedar Springs could be the host site for a work camp. The price tag for any community to host these workers is about $20,000. This covers the supplies for each home project. Housing and feeding over 200 people incur expenditures that are paid out of this money. Joe immediately began to build enthusiasm for this local mission. Checks were written and folks voiced interest in seeing the project through. Joe asked City Impact Church in Cedar Springs to be co-sponsors and they graciously agreed. Local residents were invited to apply for work to be done to their homes. Jonathan Bergsma, the pastor of City Impact, and his wife Kelley, effectively spread the word about this merciful service that would be available. GROUP staff members selected the projects to be adopted and visited each home site to evaluate needed materials. Cedar Springs Public Schools agreed to provide the school as a home base for the week. Joe felt awed as all the pieces began to fall into place.

The continually changing regulations surrounding the COVID virus made it particularly challenging to make plans with this work camp. There was no guarantee that it would happen. Structuring a safe community life with 200 campers and staff members was a challenge. In spite of the uncertainty which has been the hallmark of our past 15 months, the organizing continued and donations came in. The First Congregational Church commissioned 20 young people last Sunday for the work week ahead. Brandyn Miller, the Youth Director, has needed to host most of their meetings this past year by Zoom. How blessed it was to be together in worship and to feel excitement over doing Christian acts of mercy together. These week-long work camps become life-changing experiences for high schoolers. They develop meaningful relationships with other campers and with the residents of the homes where they work. They learn building skills that serve them well for a lifetime. The evening worship at the school and lunch time devotions at the work site anchor the commitment these teenagers make to their faith. By participants saying “yes” to this mission trip, Jesus was spotted this past week with each swing of a hammer and swipe of a paint brush. Jesus was seen in each smile offered to overwhelmed homeowners whose houses received much-needed repair. I love how God took an idea that failed and transformed it into an offering of kindness that changed hundreds of lives for good!

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