Living deep in the jungles of Bolivia or building relationships with skaters in a park that used to be a dump isn’t what most have in mind when celebrating Thanksgiving.
Each year Hall County residents from local churches and Gainesville’s Adventures in Missions choose to spend their holidays overseas serving others.
These three missionaries set aside their Thanksgiving Days to do just that.
Thanksgiving Day 2019: Costa Rica
Paul Barnello traveled to Costa Rica in mid-September to serve with a group of World Race short-term missionaries.
Some of his work consists of helping an anti-human trafficking organization, an elderly home and a community center. Barnellow said he has been building relationships with local skaters at a park that used to be a trash dump.
“Our goal with World Race Gap Year is to come alongside local churches and organizations that are already sharing Christ’s love in their communities,” Barnello said. “We come alongside them to bring lift, encouragement and love.”
On Thursday, Nov. 28, Barnello will spend half of the day serving others and the other half giving thanks to God with his fellow missionaries.
This isn’t Barnello’s first time devoting months to helping others overseas. He has lived as a missionary in more than 15 countries since 2010. He currently works with Adventures in Missions as a long-term base administration support.
Barnello said he was inspired to spend the holiday season in Costa Rica after reflecting on Jesus’ time on Earth.
“He expressed a love so deep that he would choose to die for us — even when we were his enemies — so that we could be restored to a real, tangible relationship with God,” Barnello said. “ … In a similar way, I believe that Jesus modeled for us that life is mission and mission is life. So, seeing him lead me to Costa Rica for three months and over Thanksgiving, I knew that I would meet him here in family — the body of Christ.”
Thanksgiving Day 1977-1990: Bolivia
Connie Rock, owner of Purchase Effect in downtown Gainesville, spent her childhood living in the jungles of Bolivia with her missionary parents.
Her Thanksgiving dinners never looked like the typical American celebration.
“Our kitchen was small and our Thanksgiving always consisted of rice and fish that we would catch in the river the day before,” Rock said. “I always remember my father doing a little prayer and thanking God for friends.”
Although they had limited resources, Rock said her family would tie in some American cuisine like chicken, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
“It was always fun to introduce our friends in Bolivia to a little bit of our American customs,” Rock said.
While living in Bolivia, Rock said her family did a touch of everything in regards to mission work.
Her mom would teach basic health care to the locals including bathing and handwashing, and her father would help cut out roads in the jungle with his truck.
All in all, their mission was to build relationships in Bolivia and share the Gospel.
When Rock moved back to the U.S. at 18, she didn’t mesh the qualities of her Bolivian Thanksgiving into her American life. She wanted to immerse herself in everything American, so she could feel like a local again.
“I had a reverse culture shock coming back because for my whole childhood I was living in a third-world country, and speaking Spanish and using pesos,” Rock said. “Growing up in another country has taught me to be grateful for things here.”
Rock moved to Gainesville with her husband in 2007 to work with Adventures in Missions. She currently leads the organization’s international short-term mission trips.
Thanksgiving Day 2008, 2014 and 2015: Peru
Crystal Reitsma’s Thanksgiving Days in 2008, 2014 and 2015 were celebrated close to where the Amazon River starts in Nauta, Peru.
Reitsma, a Gainesville-based missionary with Adventures in Missions, lived by herself in Peru from 2008-2015. Most of her work consisted of hosting a children’s club in her home with the neighborhood kids and leading a sponsorship program, which allows people in the U.S. to financially help a child in the South American jungles.
“The children’s club was a lot of fun,” Reitsma said. “It was really cool to see the kids grow in knowing who God was and learning his word.”
Reitsma also spent her time running a radio program with a couple of local pastors. It aired from 5-6 a.m. to cater to the agricultural community.
People would listen to music and have devotional time while getting ready for the day.
“The river was the best form of transportation to any place outside the city, so travel was slow,” Reitsma said. “Radio could reach a lot more people.”
Her first Thanksgiving in Peru included American traditions such as mashed potatoes and chicken.
Other typical Thanksgiving dishes like green bean casserole were impossible to replicate in her town, but luckily potatoes are indigenous to Peru and chicken is a common meat source.
“We always had rice,” Reitsma said. “I got together with people I knew and had dinner. I told them what it was like celebrating in America.”