River of Life brings help, hope

8/4/2010

What happens when hundreds of middle- and high-school students descend on Macon?

Homes are repaired.  Lives are changed.

More than 200 students from eight churches across the state recently participated in River of Life, a four-day local mission project hosted by Forest Hills United Methodist Church.

Dedicated to repairing and rebuilding the homes of some of the city’s elderly, disabled and low-income residents, River of Life, held July 14-18, gave volunteers the opportunity to put their faith into action.

Working on 47 projects at 29 different homes, the students and their chaperones spent three days repairing roofs, rebuilding porches, painting, and more.  Almost 100 additional volunteers from Forest Hills UMC helped in other ways.  Some showed up at 5 a.m. to cook breakfast, others made sandwiches for lunch, some cleaned toilets and still others prayed.

“It’s a youth program in a sense, but it’s a church-wide event,” said River of Life coordinator Beth Wilson.  “If it wasn’t for these other volunteers, it’d be impossible for us to put this on.”

Of the eight churches involved in the mission project, four, including Forest Hills UMC, are part of the South Georgia Conference.  Gray United Methodist Church, Grace United Methodist Church in Perry and Trinity United Methodist Church in Pooler all participated.

The low cost – just $110 per person – and the opportunity to serve close to home bring youth from Gray UMC back each year.

“We have a great opportunity to go out and reach people who are close to our own community,” said Jason Wade, Gray UMC’s youth minister.

Campers were split into teams and assigned to homes that Rebuilding Macon, a local home rehabilitation organization, identified to be in need. They then spent three days making improvements.

Kelly Johnson, children’s director at Forest Hills UMC, experienced her first River of Life this year.  

On a painting crew, she worked on a house that had been partially burned.  Instead of rebuilding the burned area, the homeowner had only been able to patch around the burned parts.  With no electricity – an extension cord was run to a nearby relative’s home – and a plastic tarp instead of roof shingles, the home was in need of repair.

“I didn’t realize that there are people in Macon that are as poor as what we saw,” Johnson said.  “I just had a moment and realized that there are people with bigger problems and bigger issues than the things that I worry and stress about.  I have to be thankful for what I have and remember that there are people out there who have a whole lot less.”

Organizers hope that as physical needs are met, spiritual needs will be met, too.

“Our hope is that they (the homeowners) can see that God still loves them and God cares for them,” Wilson said.  “They may be in a rough patch, but He hasn’t forgotten them, and we hope that they will see that through the people working on their homes.  We want them to know that someone cares about them … and that’s because there’s a God who loves them and is looking out for them.”

Even those not associated with the project have been impacted.  One man who lives in a neighborhood near Forest Hills UMC noticed what was going on and offered to help.  He attended worship a couple of nights, and then gave his life to Christ.

“It really reaches far beyond even what we expect to happen,” Wilson said.

The volunteers from Gray UMC have been so impacted by their experiences at River of Life that they are looking into the possibility of hosting their own.

“This is one of those experiences that will possibly completely transform not only your youth group, but your church,” Wade said.  “It’s not just a youth event; it’s a church-wide event.  It’s for anybody and everybody at the church to have an opportunity to serve and see how God will transform lives.”

Serving at River of Life has given 18 year-old Lauren Sanders a heart for missions.  

“It has shown me that you don’t have to go across the world to tell someone about Jesus; you can talk to your neighbor,” said Sanders, an eight-year River of Life volunteer.  “God loves praise and He loves worship.  As much as He loves the songs, He loves what you do with your life more.  You don’t just worship God by singing songs; it’s in everything that you do.  It’s in your walking, your talking, your everyday life.  We can worship him by going out into our community and showing people God’s love through our service.”

That heart for serving others is exactly what Wilson hopes will resonate with each person involved.

“What we’re trying to instill in these students is a desire and passion to serve Christ by serving other people, and help them understand how important it is to put their faith into action.  I feel like God has called His Church to take care of His people, and this is one way that Forest Hills can help take care of His people.”
  

--By Kara Witherow, South Georgia Advocate editor

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