Three stories about our mission partners.
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church created the Mission Partner program in 2013. The idea was to focus our benevolence grants on a select group of organizations whose missions aligned closely with ours. The hope, too, was that, through volunteer activity and collaborative ministry, powerful bonds would grow, connecting our people with communities in other parts of the city, and other corners of the world. In this series of articles, three members of the congregation talk about their close, personal ties to three of our mission partners. See also Valerie Krepp on Holmes Presbyterian Camp, and Sally Harwood on the ministries of Cobbie and Dessa Palm in the Philippines.
On my first trip to Lesotho, a small landlocked country nestled within South Africa, I looked out the airplane window expecting lush scenery and antelopes racing each other across the plains. Instead I saw an arid landscape with jagged mountains, rocky formations and thin rivers that cut through small villages.
Driving in from the airport, we navigated along the same roads and through the same mountains I had seen from high above. It was around this time that I was filled with a new curiosity—as we began our 12-day mission trip, what would our volunteer site look like? We were headed to Ministry of Hope, a home for vulnerable children. Would it look similar to the place I grew up? Or would it look more like the structures we drove past?
My inquiries were answered as we approached. It was a simple, one-story house, likely no more than 1,500 square feet, surrounded by a security gate. Once we pulled off the busy local road and onto the brick driveway, children surrounded the vehicle to welcome the mysterious guests. As they surveyed me with both confusion as a stranger and excitement as a visitor, I was overwhelmed knowing that in a few short days I would learn their names, their stories and much more.
We soon settled into a rhythm. While most of the group helped with maintenance around the five-room house—home to as many as 30 infants, children and teens—I settled into a routine of playing and taking care of the children. In between coloring marathons, where crayons and markers were either worn down or worn out, and an impromptu slip ‘n slide contest on a newly washed floor, every moment was punctuated with laughter, exploration and music.
Even personal grooming became an event. It started when I noticed a little girl with jagged fingernails. Afraid she would get a nail caught on something, I pulled out my clippers with the embedded file, hoisted her up on my lap, and wound my arms around so I could get a better angle to trim her tiny nails. Before long I noticed another child standing at my side, holding out both hands for me to check. Within a few minutes Dottie’s Beauty Parlor was open for business, and I had a line of customers. Over the course of an hour, everyone was tidied up, but I could tell they were yearning for something more: tactile attention.
Toward the end of our last day, I started to explain to the children about my trip back to America, trying to convey that I would not return the following day. It was too painful to simply say “goodbye,” as that felt too permanent. But using phrases like “I hope to see you again” or “see you next summer” was still difficult for them to comprehend.
From beginning to end, a mission trip is a complete 180 of emotion, from the excitement of arrival to the bittersweet moment when I look back to see the children racing toward the metal gate, vigorously waving at my retreating image. While winding through the same landscape, tracing the route back to the airport, I was already planning a return trip, with the selfish hope of seeing the same children again. But replicating the experience is impossible. I can only hope that each child finds a forever home and is loved unconditionally.
I’ve made two visits to Ministry of Hope since that mission trip in 2015. Many (not all) of the faces change. Spending a few weeks each year to volunteer is a small fraction of my life, a nominal contribution when the children have made an indelible mark on my heart.
Dottie Cannon has been a member of Fifth Avenue since 2012. She has traveled with the church on mission trips to Lesotho and Madagascar, and serves on the Mission Partner Committee.