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Story and photos by Ann Carter.

Mission trips are a funny thing. You select a location that has a need. You determine the jobs to meet that need. You set the date, pack your bags, sacrifice some vacation time, and set off to minister. But, here’s the funny part. You minister, but you come away with the transformational experience of having been ministered to by the community you went to help.

On July 9, 2011, 31 members of First Baptist met in Helena, Arkansas, the county seat of the 12th poorest county in America. We traveled by plane, car and motorcycle. We came with our children, our grandchildren and our friends. We brought our air mattresses and prepared for showering all week in a trailer We joined churches from across the south, as well as from Helena, for week one of the All Church Challenge.

Swim Camp Red Group 3

Swim Camp Red Group 3

FBC team members did a variety of jobs. Billy Burford, Jay Lustig and Carl Evans worked on construction and repair projects around the community. Melissa Johnson and Joy Carlton volunteered in the morning preschool camp for children five and under. Tena Lustig, Ann McRee, Margaret Price, and Susan Seymore worked in Blessings Ministry, volunteering in a women’s shelter, baking cookies for civic leaders in Helena, and asking business owners for donations for the construction team. Don Price used his storytelling talents on the Stories on Wheels bus for children who couldn’t make it into town. Tracy Payne provided water to all who were working outside – very important in a 115 degree heat index with 100% humidity.

Swim Camp friends

Swim Camp friends

My job was to run a swim camp for 120 children aged 6-12 with a staff of more than 100 volunteers. Swim camp is traditional Vacation Bible School combined with sports elements. The children have Bible story, music and craft times. They also have two 30-minute swim lessons each day and an introduction to both golf and soccer. Cari DuVal, Vicki Pope, Leslie Beale, Elizabeth Lipford, and David Carter worked in the camp. All of our children 12 and under were campers with kids from Helena. Their job is the ministry of friendship, very important in this racially divided community.

Swim Camp Morning games

Swim Camp morning games

It had been a bad spring in Helena – the Mississippi came within two inches of flooding the entire town, the area’s economic woes continued, and violence erupted between competing drug families. Helena is a community gripped by fear and uncertainty.

But like a cool breeze, people from outside the community who love Helena and the people who live there were coming to bring hope and a distraction. As we prepared to work, we spoke with people in the community who told us of the joy the kids had knowing that camp would go on as usual. This would be the one bright spot for their summer.

And all week long, we did good work to meet needs and provide relief in the community, but our own personal transformation came in some surprising ways.

When an elaborate computer program intended to place kids in the proper swim lessons and camp groups crashed, we spent the day in frustration and what to us felt like chaos. But the children didn’t notice. All they knew was that they were having the time of their lives. One child said, “This was the best day of my life. Thank you!” Really? Wow! God works in spite of human and technological failures.

One group of boys gave their group leader a run for his money. Every day, he poured his love and his energy into them, trying to keep them on task and not fighting. On the last day of camp, as the boys arrived, they told him that they were so excited for the Bible story time that day because, next to swimming, that was their favorite part of camp. They couldn’t wait to hear what God did next! God’s story speaks even to fighting 11 and 12 year old boys.

Swim Camp morning games

Swim Camp morning games

The flip side of the story was that a pastor from Texas, who was the older kids’ Bible story leader, shared with me that maybe his Bible story telling days were over. He said next year he would meet with local pastors to work on building relationships so that the ministry could continue with more local leadership. But when he heard how meaningful Bible story time was for the younger group, the pastor’s eyes filled with tears and he recommitted “to tell God’s stories to these kids . . . next year!” God uses us even when we don’t feel useful.

Four FBC youths were the first ever from outside the community to participate in Youth Camp. Their experience was quite different from FBC’s youth group – cheers and chants, loud step routines, hip hop dances, and two hour Bible study sessions. Despite the local history of white hatred of blacks, the youths from Helena worked hard to include our very white kids. Whenever the camp leader would see our kids huddled together, she’d call out, “Four white kids sitting in a row!” and campers would grab one of our kids to sit with them. In this community, that is a powerful testimony to God’s work in the hearts and minds of youths.

The poor of Helena rely on federal feeding programs that come with regulations too many to list. A week before camp, there was no one willing to take on that challenge for the lunch program until a local church, New Light Missionary Baptist, came forward. With a little kitchen, the small group really struggled to get 240 lunches out to camp every day. But loving adult leaders gave up their lunches so that kids in the camp could eat. They helped the children share their food so that no one went without. Eventually, everyone got their food, but not before I saw God’s love in action over and over and over.

If you have never been on a mission trip, I challenge you to go with your friends, take your children and your parents; share the power of God working in your life and the lives of the people you serve. And if you can’t travel, then find places in Richmond that don’t look like heaven and go to work. And see what funny things happen.


Ann CarterAnn Whitfield Carter is sometimes known as the crazy person who loves middle schoolers. In 2002, she became the temporary Youth Associate for Middle School. Nine years later, she hopes it is permanent! Ann joined First Baptist in 1992 and met her husband, David, in the church choir. They have been singing together ever since. Their three children, Ellie (15), Claire (12) and Mary Wise (7), are active in First Baptist’s children and youth ministries. When Ann is not working, she is managing her kids’ busy lives, singing with the Richmond Symphony Chorus, or drinking coffee to fuel her for whatever is next on her calendar.

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