Honoring the Gospel

There are people in Nathan Gunn’s Syracuse neighborhood who don’t know he works for Young Life. They just think he’s the guy who takes close to 100 people to El Salvador every winter.

Gunn, the area director in Syracuse, loves the conversations that grow out of his area’s El Salvador connection, but make no mistake: This annual mission trip is all about Syracuse high-school students encountering and following Jesus.

"We really do share the Gospel there, but my mission is to teenagers in Syracuse," said Gunn. "If we continue to send kids into the world who don’t know or believe that having a significant relationship with the poor is part of following Christ, then we’re dishonoring the Gospel."

Since 2006, Syracuse Young Life kids and leaders have spent a week in the village of Rancho Grande, El Salvador. A relationship that started because a former Syracuse staff member came from El Salvador has become a transformative experience for 80 teenagers a year, some of whom only sign up because Latin America sounds much warmer than upstate New York in the winter.

The tradition started as an outreach and service opportunity for a small group of kids and has become part of the fabric of the mission in Syracuse. Before groups started going south, Syracuse was undergoing typical area struggles — behind financially, camp spots were hard to fill and the community was less in tune with the mission than Gunn would have liked. Since the birth of the El Salvador trip, it’s like a different area.

"Our area has exploded — financially, ministry-wise, camping, everything," he said. "I really attribute it to the fact that my friends in one of the poorest places of the world are praying for us."

A "prom"-ise of help

Taylor Hornstein spent three and a half years on Young Life staff in Syracuse, and she started making annual trips to El Salvador six years ago as a college student. Now she can’t imagine a winter without a visit to the El Salvadorians she considers brothers and sisters.

"It is as though I’m going to visit my friends, and not only do I have the opportunity to help them but I also have the opportunity to see high-school kids’ lives change down there," said Hornstein. "It’s been our experience that when you take kids away and take them someplace completely new, not only do their walls fall down but they actually start to engage with the fact that there’s something bigger than themselves."

Hornstein cherishes the times her high-school friends have been prompted to action by the relationships they formed in El Salvador, like last spring when the group learned their friends in Rancho Grande weren’t going to have enough food to last the year because of severe flooding. The high- school kids wanted to do something to help their friends when they got home, so they organized an initiative in partnership with the Young Life group in nearby Rochester. They solicited donations from friends and family and put on a used prom dress sale, and the result was $40,000 raised in three weeks – a result that shattered their original goal of $25,000.

New trajectories

Prom shopping isn’t the only thing altered by exposure to the people of El Salvador. In more than a few cases, these short-term missionaries have set a new career trajectory because of their trip. Matt Sherwood first traveled to El Salvador as a high-school student, and it changed his way of thinking about a potential major when he enrolled at the University of Vermont. He learned that Vermont offered a program called Community and International Development, and the material in the classes resonated with him.

Before long, Sherwood was making contact with engineers from a group called Living Water so that they could install new wells that would provide clean water for his El Salvadoran friends. He has since graduated from Vermont, and is working alongside a non-profit organization called Hopeprint that serves his city’s large refugee population.

"The idea of service to the poor started to build in my life," he said.

Sean Haley was a Young Life kid in Syracuse and later a volunteer leader during his college years, but he resisted the El Salvador trip until his senior year at Syracuse, when his excuses ran out. By the time he returned home to Upstate New York, Haley’s vision of his future as a doctor looked completely different than it once had. Now he is a medical student, also pouring into the refugees in Syracuse and figuring out what it means to provide medical care to the least of these.

"It completely changed me," Haley said. "It changed where I was going in life. I knew I wanted to go to medical school but I had the Lord move in my heart and tell me that it was more than just being a doctor and healing people, that I could be a voice for Him somehow."

Great transformations

The purpose of the annual mission trips, which now typically have a waiting list of 20 or more high-school kids, is threefold, Gunn said: First, they support ongoing ‘quality of life’ initiatives like regular medical clinics, consistent clean water supply, access to education and stabilizing the food supply through irrigation. Secondly, they assist in major infrastructure projects like building fences, chapels, schools, and large-scale irrigation systems. Finally, they partner with Young Life Central American staff as staff and leaders have started to reach kids in the gang neighborhoods of San Salvador.

Moreover, the partnership has also birthed a new Young Life ministry in El Salvador. Because of the impact made by this group of young Americans, Enrique Martinez felt called to start Young Life among his own people in 2011, and Gunn and his friends have supported the new work financially and through their prayers and guidance.

Now, nearby Young Life areas, inspired by the lasting effects of Syracuse’s international partnership, have started taking trips of their own to different villages in El Salvador and pouring into the people they meet.

Gunn loves to tell stories about the first time his El Salvadoran friends tasted clean water from their village’s well, or the difference in their food supply because of better irrigation or different planting schedules. But while he would never deny the good the Young Life teams have been able to do, Gunn and other project leaders know that the greatest transformations happen not in natives, but in middle-class suburban kids who are seeing Christ in new ways.

"Their walls are already broken down because they have left home, and they meet people who love them unconditionally, people who have nothing," said Sean Haley.

"It’s like the best camp trip you could ever take with kids."

In 2011, Young Life Expeditions conducted 99 trips, taking more than 40 Young Life areas to 26 countries, including underserved areas of the U.S. Would your area be interested in partnering with a country around the world? It all starts with GOING. So contact Young Life Expeditions Director Michele Sbrana today to discuss the first step ... planning your trip.