JEFFERSON — When Rev. Joe McKechnie was trying to figure out where his church, Arbor Pointe United Methodist, should go for its foreign mission trip, Belize kept popping into his mind.
"I’d never been there, obviously never heard of it, didn’t know where it was," he recalled. "It just kind of came about in a weird way."
Seventeen members of the Jefferson-based church recently returned from the Central American country where they spent a week, from July 11-18, helping others in the remote Bermudian Landing region.
"It was a jungle region, it was a very poor region," McKechnie said. "Most of the homes didn’t have electricity (and) very few had running water."
While there, the congregation held various children’s activities, built a house and led worship services and Bible studies for those living in the area’s nine villages.
The trip’s main focus, though, was to spread love and fellowship, McKechnie said.
"It wasn’t a traditional mission trip where you’re standing out, building a house or anything," he said. "For the most part, it was about developing relationships and just showing people that God loves them."
It was this reason that Jefferson resident Patty Moore, along with her sons, Aidan, 14, and O’Bryan, 11, chose to join the trip.
Moore wanted to bring the "love of Christ" to those living in the region, but when she arrived, Moore said she also learned an invaluable lesson.
"I learned way more than I feel like I gave," she said. "Truly they showed us the love of Christ in everything they did. We set out to show the people of Belize the love of Christ and all left there knowing we received a gift in return that words really can’t describe."
The church brought with them various items to distribute, including basketball and soccer jerseys from the Jefferson Recreation Department, as well as toys, clothes, sports equipment and other supplies.
Church members also sponsored a Vacation Bible School for children, which was a big hit. The first day 60 children attended, McKechnie said, but by the end of the week that number had swelled to more than 200 children and adults.
"It was really an amazing thing because the whole community was really excited about our presence there," he said.
Spending time with the children throughout the week was most rewarding to Jefferson resident Kim Fisher.
"To me the best part of the trip was just interacting with the kids and being able to just love and hug on them and play with them and just be available for some kind of support for them," she explained.
The moment that stands out the most to Moore was when she visited a man who was dying of cancer. What surprised her the most, she said, was his faith. Instead of complaining about his condition, the man asked the church members to sing with him.
"He was just praising and praising, he had tears streaming down his face and the intensity of the look on his face, I’ll never forget," Moore said. "He was amazing and just to see his spirit, it really did change my life."
McKechnie agreed. "We go down to serve others, but we end up being more affected by them, and his story will live in our hearts forever."
McKechnie said he was impressed with the congregation’s dedication and sacrifice during the weeklong journey.
"As the pastor of the church, it was neat to me because the people who went, they (gave) up their vacation, they gave up their money and they gave up their time and effort to serve others."
But sacrificing all of these things was worth it for Moore and Fisher, who both agreed it was hard saying goodbye to the people they had grown to know and love.
"We left our hearts down there and we brought theirs back with us," said Moore.
Fisher said she wakes up every morning thinking of the children she met and frequently goes through photographs from the trip. "I just sit there and reminisce," she explained.
The Belize trip is the second foreign mission trip for Arbor Pointe; the church previously visited Mexico in 2007.
While the congregation has no foreign mission trips planned for the near future, McKechnie did say he will plan another one.
Arbor Pointe United Methodist was established five years ago and currently worships at West Jackson Middle School at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.