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America: Peace, Love, and Poverty?

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Do you remember those commercials on television showing young children, barely clothed, walking the streets of a town in poverty? At the end of the message, a celebrity usually asks the viewer to call the number at the bottom of the screen and donate a small amount of money to help these kids in need. When I would see these types of commercials, I normally changed the channel. I have always known there were people struggling in the world, but I never took the time to give back to those less fortunate. I took a trip last summer to Benton Harbor, Michiganwith my church and realized how privileged I am to live where I do. This excursion also enabled me to gain a stronger relationship with God and the members of my church. Although the place we visited was definitely not the poorest city in our country, it made me more appreciative and completely changed me as a person.

Early in the morning, a small portion of my church youth group would wake up to take a walk around Benton Harbor, Michigan before breakfast and our long day of work ahead. During this time, I got to reflect on the trip and really get a good look at this town that was so different than mine. Benton Harbor is located across a small river from a town that is more like I had been used to seeing. The nearby town is more like my home, and the large contrast between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor was surprising to me. Walking around Benton Harbor, I saw very small homes, almost to the point of collapsing, dirt roads, and men on the street with no place to live. My heart hurt for these people, as I observed the poverty, and seeing this made me more determined to make a difference during my week there.

The first two days of my trip were spent with children at the local YMCA. I was excited to see the building because I work at a YMCA where I live. This recreation center was nothing like the one had been used to seeing. The building consisted of conference rooms, half of a basketball court, and a small playground outside. Children from the community began piling into the rooms ready to play. A few of the young girls came up to us asking to play with our hair, and the boys were excited to play basketball. Not all of the children were so enthusiastic or excited to see us, however, I walked up to two four-year-old twin boys to see if they wanted to go outside with me. I remember a employee telling my group these two were not very social and not to expect them to talk to us. J’jaun and J’quan were not interested in participating in basketball, playing with chalk, nor did they want to swing on the playground; these boys wanted to catch grasshoppers. So, for hours in the hot sun, I caught dozens of grasshoppers with these shy boys and never did they speak a word. Even on the second day together, we continued to run after the small insects in silence. Not once did either J’juan or J’quan talk about their life at home, or their parents, but you could see in their sad eyes that they deserved a better life. They were covered in dirt and always wore the same clothes. At the end of the last day there, both the boys and I knew we had to say goodbye and end our fun, as it was time for my church group to help others in the community for our last few days. It was horrible saying goodbye to J’juan and J’quan. I had never heard their small voices until they grabbed my hand and whispered “Don’t go.” I hugged them, with my eyes filling with tears, and waved as our van pulled away from the YMCA. I still think about the twins often. I pray that they grow up to be happy and healthy. I hope they escape from the atmosphere they are in today.

The last two days of the trip were long work days. My friends and I were assigned to paint a house and a church in the community. The home we painted was like nothing I had seen before. The homeowner lived in filth and the home was basically deteriorating. Throughout the day we cleaned the rooms and painted the outside. While painting, we met many members of the community who shared the struggles they face while living in Benton Harbor. It was very hard to relate to the stories of homelessness, violence, and loss because our lives are so different than their’s. Yet their living situation did not seem to affect them. These people continued to walk around with smiles on their faces. While listening, I prayed that God would heal these people of their hurt and give them happiness in the future.

Since the mission trip, I have shared my experiences with others and have hopefully opened their eyes to the poverty that people struggle through. These cities and towns in poverty are not far away from our homes and everyone should give what they can to help those less fortunate. I thank God every day for what I have and pray for the people I met in Benton Harbor who have made a permanent mark on my heart. I personally do not change the channel during those commercials anymore; instead, I pick up the phone and give what I can to those in need. Everyone has the ability to give, and there is always someone who is less fortunate.



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