Students alight from SOAR on mission trajectory
Amber-Lee Hamm seems like an ordinary young adult. She’s a university student and part-time children’s ministry coordinator at McIvor Avenue MB Church, Winnipeg, where she’s a member. But Hamm is one of a group of young people who have been transformed into passionate advocates for extending God’s kingdom in every context they inhabit – through participation in MB Mission short-term programs.
For each these young adults, threads of their story lead back to MB Mission’s SOAR Heartland program, a short-term initiative aiming for long-term impact. “SOAR fits together all the things we love: church ministry, global mission, inner city,” Hamm says. Pursuing a degree in social work, she first developed “a broken heart” for people of inner-city Winnipeg through high-school participation in SOAR.
The 10-day mission experience for high school students, held over spring break, teams church and school groups with organizations working among marginalized populations in Winnipeg’s core area. The tightly packed schedule includes daily corporate worship events, devotional time, and teaching. Day 2’s all-day guided exploration of core neighbourhoods provides an orientation to urban issues.
Celebrating 10 years this spring, SOAR Heartland builds on experience, working with the same partners year after year, pairing returning teams with the ministries they previously served alongside.
And the decade has grown a group of young leaders. Nearly half of SOAR’s organizational leadership team (called Take Flight) is “homegrown talent” – twentysomethings whose SOAR exposure as high-school participants has drawn them into serial involvement with MB Mission programs, including ACTION (a 6-week summer mission trip) and TREK (a 6- or 10-month program of church planting support abroad), and into year-round relationship with local ministries and people.
When Paul Peters followed his youth group onto a SOAR team in 2004, he discovered, “God gifted me with a heart of compassion. I realized I had a heart for people, for relationships.”
But concluding those relationships at the end of the 10 days “felt empty.” The next year, Peters took phone numbers from boys he befriended at his SOAR ministry placement, and has connected with them throughout the years: a phone call, a cup of coffee, a game of catch with young men who often have few male role models or mentors. “Hopefully they can see someone who’s done something different,” he says.
At SOAR, “God grabbed my heart for the inner city,” says Lisa Derksen, a River East MB Church member who was a high school participant in SOAR’s first year. That “started a journey of exploring what it looks like to pursue both [local and global] mission together.” She feels a call to long-term involvement in community; in part through MB Mission programs.
Locally, it means she and Hamm didn’t leave friendships behind at the end of the week. “We’re living life together in relationship” with several girls they met through SOAR placements, helping with homework, cooking together, or just hanging out.
“We have a dream of one day potentially having these girls be a SOAR team,” says Hamm.
Derksen is driven to see those “impacted by this program become the ones who are impacting others.” After 10 years, she’s beginning to see people empowered to do the ministry themselves – “it’s a long-term picture of continual service.”
Sharing the love of Christ
Globally, it has translated into other trips with MB Mission. Serving in Japan on TREK redefined for Hamm what mission could look like: “it’s about sharing the love of Christ wherever you are, whatever you are doing.”
Having grown up as a missionary kid in Burkina Faso, pre-med student Phoebe Thiessen thought she knew what mission was about, but her experiences with TREK and SOAR “opened my eyes to the impact of the local church and its role in mission” and to “the needs in my own backyard.” Thiessen discovered that “living missionally means being aware of what God wants to offer us through others.”
“Mission is a lifestyle; mission programs are part of that journey, but they are not mission itself.” It’s a call to “join God in what he is doing around the world – restoration, reconciliation,” says Derksen, who went on ACTION to DR Congo and Peru, and is now on staff with MB Mission.
Working in contexts where injustice is rampant, these young missionaries discovered that good news affects more than the spiritual.
“If you don’t feed people and put a shirt on their back, how can they hear what you have to say?” says Thiessen. “If there’s no physical, tangible love, how can they experience Jesus?”
Without addressing felt needs, the gospel “doesn’t actually become good news,” Derksen adds.
But meeting needs – spiritual or physical – takes more than a handout. “Encouragement” and “empowerment” are Peters’ watchwords. An ACTION trip to DR Congo took Peters out of the pig barn where he was working, into university to study international development. With his church connections in Congo, “I aim to build mutual relationship,” he says. “We have something to learn, not just something to offer.”
Mission and life blurred
“Short-term mission for us is an orientation to the rest of our lives,…realigning ourselves with Christ,” says Thiessen. “And out of that, how do we interact with and love those around us.”
“Mission trips and life have blurred” for Cory Bell, student ministry director at Eastview Community Church. He joined an ACTION team to DR Congo “on a whim” two years ago. That trip “impacted me in a very large way in a transition time in my life.” Since then, he can’t get enough of local and global opportunities, and his career intentions have shifted to involve leading young people.
Through SOAR, he gained an understanding of local need “outside the bubble of East St. Paul” (a wealthy Winnipeg bedroom community) and formed global relationships in Thailand and DR Congo.
SOAR partnered Eastview with low-income housing complex, Keenleyside, resulting in ongoing relationships. “Last year, they were so suspicious,” says MB Mission short term mission coordinator and SOAR co-director Carol Letkeman. Now, Bell has keys to the building where he visits residents biweekly, bringing Eastview youth to volunteer on a monthly basis.
Prayer and relationship
While service is the visible manifestation of SOAR, prayer is its heartbeat. Thiessen coordinates an intercession team that listens for the Spirit’s guidance as they pray for all who are affected by the activities of SOAR.
Peters’ friends in DR Congo contribute as well: one Congolese MB church held an all-night prayer vigil for SOAR participants.
Like the relationships that don’t end with SOAR, prayer and listening to God also extend into life-after-mission-trip. Though several of these young adults begin their stories with, “When I heard about this opportunity, I had 24 hours to decide…,” they talk about learning to make decisions in community. “There’s an emphasis on not just jumping into things, but really thinking it through and getting affirmation,” says Peters.
“Team is a significant part of all our journeys,” says Derksen. MB Mission programs are about “doing stuff together” – a combination of “attention to God’s voice and team” is key.
For social worker Melanie Muehling, whose heart was touched for needs among Aboriginals through early SOAR participation, the deep community she witnessed among Take Flight leaders was compelling. SOAR’s core values of dependency on Jesus, risk-taking obedience, transforming community, relational integrity, and celebration are “an invitation to contribute to the whole.”
Her husband Jonathan, who first participated in SOAR in 2003, says MB Mission’s “focus on staying connected with the local church” convinced him to stick with church, even when it’s hard.
SOAR has left an impact on these young adults, but what of the communities they serve? Thiessen sees hope in “one degree.”
Her highlight is “seeing the Spirit of God move in people; they slow down their lives enough to hear the voice of God for themselves.” And if that results in a change, even of “one degree, it has the power to change lives.”