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Adults on a mission to serve

Hall County residents cross borders, seas to share God's word

POSTED: August 31, 2014 1:00 a.m.
/For The Times

Rebekah Ryan of Gainesville has traveled to Guatemala three times for mission trips. In July, she visited an AIDS hospital and spent time with the children. She took photos of the children she met along the journey. Ryan, a 25-year-old North Hall High School graduate, is part of a growing trend of young adults spending time overseas, sharing the Scripture.

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Rebekah Ryan stood outside a Guatemalan AIDS hospital with some trepidation in July. The Hall County native wasn’t afraid to admit what was on her mind.

“Before I went, I was expecting to be afraid; I guess, because I’ve never been around people who have AIDS,” Ryan said. “So going there, I had a lot of fear.”

Her perspective changed when she heard the story — abandoned by his family, the 6-month-old AIDS victim is unlikely to be adopted because of his diagnosis.

“The moment I saw this little baby, I picked him up immediately and loved on him,” the 25-year-old North Hall High School graduate said. “That for me was a good moment — realizing that no matter who you are, what disease you have, if you’re an outcast in society, everyone needs love.”

Ryan’s story is one many Hall County natives can tell. Several Gainesville-based groups head to international destinations during the summer to spread the gospel. From Third World countries to nations similar to the United States, North Georgia natives pulled out their passports and set off to build schools, administer medical aid and teach English and farming techniques, as well as share their faith.

Answering a call

Despite the daunting nature of sharing one’s faith with individuals who may not have the same customs or culture or speak the same language, Hall County residents took to heart the words of the Great Commission.

Jesus said “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)

Madalyn Walters heard those words most clearly when she felt compelled to join her first international mission trip to Guatemala in 2011.

“God really convicted me of being kind of ‘spiritually fat’ — going to a lot of Bible studies but not sharing my faith with other people,” she said.

Since then, Walters has shared her conviction about God in Guatemala and Jamaica. And the University of Georgia student recently headed to Asia following an invitation from several Chinese and Japanese friends and classmates.

Walters — who had been studying the Bible with her Japanese friend, Reina — soon learned few to no individuals in Reina’s home had ever heard about Christianity.

“Reina’s mom had never heard about Jesus before,” she said. “She didn’t know who that was, and neither did a lot of people in her community. As soon as my roommate and I got to Japan, (Reina’s mom) was like ‘Hi, I’m so happy you’re here. I’m really excited to hear the gospel.’”

The trip led Reina’s mother to invite her friends over for an impromptu Bible reading.

“Now Reina’s mom loves Jesus and we read the Bible every week together,” Walters said.

Learning a lesson

Walters learned a new truth about international mission work: A lack of economic prosperity and an absence of spiritual resources are not the same.

“Guatemala was considered a poorer country, but they were spiritually rich,” the 2012 Dawson County High School graduate said. “Whereas Japan is a more technological and richer country, but very spiritually poor.”

Maxey Ladd, the children’s pastor at Riverbend Baptist Church on Cleveland Highway, agreed.

For the Gainesville man who has traveled to Argentina, Venezuela, Uganda and Kenya since 2008, he saw a major difference during his mission trip to British Columbia, Canada.

“That is such a dark continent,” Ladd said. “The people there are very well-financed. They make good money — of course it costs to live there — but the majority of those people don’t see a need for God.”

This realization was hammered home when Ladd met a University of British Columbia student. In almost four years of study, the woman never met another believer on campus.

“She was just really excited that somebody was up there (who) believed like she did,” Ladd said. “That’s one of the things that stands out in my mind. Among thousands and thousands and thousands of people, a person could make it three years and not talk to anyone who had any kind of spiritual influence in their lives.”

However, his pledge to share the word has never wavered. Plus, his experience has taught him the best way to relate God’s message of love.

“I guess the biggest thing I can say is to show God’s love to them by loving on them,” Ladd said. “Because to a lot of them, that’s the only Jesus anybody ever sees is through us, and the love we show for them.”

Serving others

And while showing God’s love helps spread the gospel, the humanitarian work missionaries do is still invaluable.

Ladd is working with the Buford-based organization, Helping Hands Missions, on an initiative called “Growing the Village.” In addition to building housing, a medical clinic and sports fields on recently purchased acreage in the country, missionaries are teaching agricultural skills to orphans.

“Out in the villages, they don’t know any of those skills,” Ladd said. “They find an animal to kill and they do. They find some berries to eat, so they do. It’s a big effort to try to educate those children over there, to try to help them to have a better life.”

Ryan, who traveled to Guatemala with Lakewood Baptist Church’s mission team, has seen the results of her and others’ work.

After her first trip to Guatemala in 2006, she came back “heartbroken,” describing the living conditions in detail including “sewage running down the streets.”

Following her third trip to the central American country in July, Ryan was elated to see the dramatic improvements.

“I was really encouraged to see all that change,” Ryan said. “Instead of heartbroken, I left encouraged. God was still at work there, even when I wasn’t there.”

Considering service

Before setting out overseas, however, Walters suggests looking beyond the stereotypical picture of international mission work.

“I would say think about it in a strategic way, because I know most churches like go to places where the gospel is already prevalent, such as Guatemala or Jamaica, places I went at first,” she said. “I would suggest looking into somewhere a bit longer (than a week), and a place God is really putting on your heart.”

Ladd also advises future mission teams start locally before setting sail abroad.

“Start at home, in your own community, in the poorest section of town,” he said. “Move from there to a larger city, and then move from there to a foreign country before going to a Third World country.

“A Third World country will shake the foundation right from underneath you if you’re not used to seeing poverty, people hungry, and we have tons of it right here in America. To get a taste of it and find out if you’re interested in going, start at your back door.”


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