While visiting the home of a young woman in Costa Rica, Jamie Gibson noticed a large black garbage bag in the corner of the woman’s kitchen. She watched the woman pull something out of the trash bag and put it on the fire. Gibson soon realized that the woman was using diapers – dried, soiled diapers from the city dump – as fuel for her family’s cooking fire.
Gibson, the United Methodist Volunteers In Mission (UMVIM) coordinator for the South Georgia Conference, has witnessed countless similar scenes around the world.
“You see things like this and go home with them and mull it over and you think, ‘There’s got to be something I can do.’”
And do something she has.
On September 29, Gibson and a team of 11 people from the South Georgia Conference will head to the Dominican Republic. The trip will be Gibson’s third mission trip of the year; a fourth is planned for December. She has taken 20 international mission trips since 1990, and has also served on domestic mission trip teams.
“We say about mission trips that they’re kind of like eating peanuts – you can’t eat just one – you get hooked on them,” she said.
Gibson took her first international mission trip to Belize in 1990. While there, she and her teammates helped build a church. Seeing how they helped the community was inspiring.
“I could see the impact that this was having on the community,” she said. “They were going to have their own church.”
After taking a few years off, she went on her next mission trip to Cuba in 1997.
“I had such a wonderful experience in Cuba that it just kept me going.”
In addition to Belize and Cuba, the Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church member has been to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Montserrat, and France. She also traveled to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
When Gibson began doing international mission work, the focus was primarily on building churches, she said. Over the years, however, the focus has shifted from just building the buildings to a more holistic approach.
“A mother who hasn’t fed her children in three days is really not interested in going to church,” Gibson said. “She’s interested in feeding her child. So until you can get that taken care of, they’re not going to be receptive to going to church and to hearing the message.”
Passionate about mission work in general, it’s this holistic approach to mission work that has Gibson especially excited.
It was her experience in Costa Rica, and the realization that cooking fuel is scarce for many, that led Gibson to learn about a low-tech and low-cost way to cook food – the solar oven.
Made of cardboard and aluminum foil, the oven is portable, easy-to-assemble and made of readily available items.
“It’s such a problem,” she said. “Wood is scarce, and women have to walk a long way to get wood, or keep their children out of school to get wood to cook the meals. Cardboard is one thing every Third World country has.”
The smoke from the cooking fires is a health hazard, too. As people move into urban areas, the fire is brought inside the home and causes respiratory problems.
“Solar energy can be a real life saver,” said Gibson, who learned of the solar oven while attending a training course on alternative fuel sources.
While on mission trips, Gibson teaches women how to build and use the solar ovens, but never intends for them to cook out of a cardboard box for the rest of their lives.
“It teaches them that solar cooking is possible,” she said, “and the money they would have spent on wood they can now spend on better food for their families.”
With a father in the Army Corps of Engineers, Gibson grew up traveling and “moved constantly,” and it’s developed into a way of life. She and her husband are self-employed, so she has the freedom to travel.
When asked which trip was her favorite and most impactful, she answers, “the next one.”
The next trip for Gibson will be later this month to the Dominican Republic. Part of her team will include five women from Allentown United Methodist Church’s Agape Stitchers group.
In the past seven years, this group of women in their 60s to late 90s has sewn more than 4,500 girl’s dresses, 2,000 boy’s shorts/shirt outfits, and 600 baby blankets, all of which have been sent to needy children around the world. Some of those dresses made it to the Dominican Republic and inspired women there to learn to sew; the five Agape Stitchers will travel with Gibson to the Dominican Republic to teach them.
After learning to sew, the Dominican women will then travel across the border to Haitian refugee camps and teach women there to sew.
“This is seeing your religion in action,” said Gibson, who is also an Early Response Trainer for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). “It’s not just sitting in a pew on Sunday morning; this is it coming alive for you.”
The prayer support, financial support and structural support that she receives from the Pitts Chapel congregation, the South Georgia Annual Conference and the United Methodist denomination are critical, she said.
“There are a lot of things I’m not real good at,” Gibson said. “But I can love people and I can have a desire to show them a better way and that their lives can be a little better.
“There’s no way you can do this without being changed.”
--By Kara Witherow, South Georgia Advocate editor
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