Southeast of Puerto Rico and just south of St. Maarten, nestled in the bright blue waters of the Caribbean lies the tiny island of Saba. With only a five mile radius and a population of 1,600 people, Saba is famous for only a few things; the highest point in the Netherlands kingdom, and the world’s shortest commercial airstrip. Known as the Caribbean’s “Unspoiled Queen”, it is a perfect tourist destination. Yet, since spring break 2003, this exquisite Caribbean island has been home to Lipscomb students who simply want to serve.
Under the leadership of Michael and Aletha Thomas, Lipscomb Missions has been sending trips to Saba for nearly 10 years with a three-fold purpose: encourage the families, teach Christian morality through the teachings of Jesus, and exhort Saban residents to participate in acts of service. Just after their wedding in the summer of 2001, the Thomases moved to Saba for Michael to begin medical school at Saba University School of Medicine. As Michael began his studies, Aletha began to teach at the island high school. For two years they had the unique experience of being involved in the Saban community. Being a Lipscomb alum, Michael (’99) was intrigued at the thought of having Lipscomb mission teams come down to the island to explore the opportunities of service.
“When the trips to Saba began, most of the locals thought, ‘Wow, this is great! A group of people coming to clean beaches, clear trails, play with our kids, and spread a little cheer,’” says Aletha. With no church or ministry on the receiving end of the Lipscomb trips, the Thomases focused their efforts on the in-roads they had made with the local schools and the Dutch government. With very little religious presence on the island, teaching basic values and principles of life became the team’s focus.
Naturally, the Saban people began to ask why the Lipscomb teams kept coming back to serve. “Due to the attitudes on the island, it was scary to come out and bluntly tell them – It’s because of Jesus,” says Aletha. Through honest testimonies shared by Lipscomb students, more and more of the youth of Saba began to understand that broken lives could only be mended and transformed by Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for us.
Lipscomb Junior Paloma Hassell grew up in Saba and recalls the group coming to visit when she was a young girl, “I enjoyed them coming just because they had so many different activities for us to do and also how they talked to us about our spirituality and just worshipping with them was such a great experience.”
Hassell chose to attend Lipscomb University as a student and was excited to sign up for the same mission trip back to her island home, “I think it was good for the people there to see that I came back down to serve them.” Having a Dutch father and a Colombian mother, Hassell grew up speaking Spanish. With her language background, in her three years at Lipscomb, Hassell has been on the Saba mission trip, but she has also taken part in trips to the City of Children, Honduras and Cozumel where she has been a tremendous asset.
Katy Heinly, a Senior Psychology major from Maryland, has developed a deep bond with Saba and its people. Initially not interested in going to Saba for a spring break trip, she was convinced by team members to go in 2010, who believed she would be able to relate well with the demographic of people in Saba. She just returned last month from her third trip.
“There are several reasons why I keep going back to Saba; the community there has become like family to me. The trip is dedicated to getting real and getting close to the kids, teenagers, and families we work with. Therefore, relationships are built quickly and on a foundation of transparency, honesty, our own brokenness, and the hope that is offered through Christ,” says Heinly.
Last spring, Heinly spent a semester in Saba, working everyday as a teacher’s assistant in a kindergarten. After school hours were spent tutoring, volunteering with the Sea Scouts outdoor education program, visiting the local nursing home, and creating relationships through basketball practices and dinners at different families’ homes. She also became very close with Nacio, a special needs boy from the kindergarten school.
“It was challenging and frustrating to hear of the problems people were facing and feel as though I couldn't "fix" them. I wanted to fix Nacio's special needs, I wanted to find solutions to relationships and aspects of their culture that I ultimately had to realize weren't my responsibility. They are God's children, I am God's child and I had to have faith that He would redeem situations in His time. I had to let go of control and trust that God was completing his beautiful plan regardless of my seeing it or not. It was extremely uplifting to build friendships, love and be loved, and commune with others based on the knowledge that we are all broken, beautiful children,” says Heinly.
Aletha Thomas has developed a strong connection with Katy over the years, “Katy is an absolutely beautiful example of a humble, gentle, honest, and loving servant of God to Saba and its people.”
Heinly has seen tremendous growth on the island of Saba throughout her years of service to the community. This year's spring break trip was especially encouraging for Heinly and the rest of the team, as a young teenager named Jordan boldly decided to follow Christ and be baptized. This is the first time Lipscomb has witnessed this event in the nearly ten years they have been serving in Saba.
Heinly was so inspired by Jordan’s profession of her faith, “Jordan is an example of the hope we see coming alive in the next generation. Her changing life is fruit of the harvest God has been cultivating there, through years of answering to donors that there is no technical "church" there, to convince people that you can preach God's love without preaching a word at someone, but rather genuinely caring about others and walking alongside them. It was such a blessing to go back to Saba this year and see how God has redeemed his peoples’ lives.”
Saba may be a tiny dot on the map that most people have never heard of, but after a decade of planting seeds and forming relationships with hundreds of local students on the island, Saba is pretty famous around Lipscomb’s campus.