For more than four decades, the youth group at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, has traveled to Maine for a mission trip. But in recent years, Westminster has also been the focus of a mission trip for a church in Maine.
“This 40-year tradition of spreading our wings of hope, faith and love to Hartford, Maine, connects each one of us to Westminster’s past, present and future,” writes Mark Aquino, Westminster’s youth ministry coordinator and participant in the 1997 trip, in the church newsletter.
Westminster started working in Hartford through an assignment from Rural Community Action Ministries. Although Westminster had the option to choose a different location every year, the church opted to continue going to Hartford and strengthen the bond that had formed.
The destination for the mission trip is Hartford Community Church, a small congregation of about 40 members in rural Maine. The Buffalo youth focus on construction projects while there.
The trip is a church-wide affair, with youth selling pies and Maine shares — an opportunity for members to “invest” by donating $10 to the trip and in return receiving a handwritten postcard from the youth while they are in Maine — as fundraisers, said Debbie Katz, Christian educator and trip chaperone.
Seven years ago, Ron Darling of the Hartford church started the Maine Bisons, a youth group formed for the sole purpose of mission work, with a focus on a yearly trip to Buffalo to do urban mission, mainly volunteering in soup kitchens or food pantries. The youth groups sometimes meet during their respective trips, gathering at work sites or for meals, Aquino said.
The number of youth involved has grown from five to 19, with some participants coming from other congregations or towns.
Darling named money as the biggest hurdle the group faces in preparing for the trips.
“It takes about $7,000 to take a group to Buffalo,” he said. “When we’re home, 90 percent of our time is fundraising.”
This begs the question: If there is work to be done in Maine and in Buffalo and youth are available in both places, why make the trip?
“People always ask me, ‘Why go to Buffalo?’ and it’s not only because Buffalo comes here for the last 40-plus years but it’s so hard to get the kids today to do anything local. And the reason for that is there’s too many other distractions,” Darling said. “There’s softball and soccer and football. When we take them to another state you have them for the whole week. There’s no place for them to go.”
Something special happens when all of the distractions of daily life are removed, said the leaders of both groups.
Darling sees a change in the way the Maine youth act while on the trip. He told of one young man who had a tendency to act out at home but who surprised Darling and other group members by stepping up and volunteering to wash dishes the first night the group was in Buffalo.
“It’s so much different to see them when they are with me in Buffalo,” he said. “It’s surprising how different and mature they act in Buffalo.”
The youth don’t bring along many gadgets and don’t even watch TV on the trip.
“They love to play Connect Four. The game is like a hundred years old but they’ll sit there and play Connect Four for hours at night after we’re done work,” Darling said.
For the Buffalo youth, the trips to Maine are life altering, Aquino said. It takes a lot of work to plan, raise money for and execute a youth mission trip to a destination 10 hours away. From a logistical standpoint, it would be easier to stay local, but the longevity of Westminster’s program and the growth of Hartford’s bear witness to the intangibles that make the effort worthwhile.
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.