Student-athletes find new playing field in spring break mission trips

By Mark McGee on 3/29/2012

  
  

Spring break is usually a time for college students to spend a few days having fun. For many students that means a trip to a beach to spend time in the sun and relax.

But for a special group the break is a time for service as part of a mission trip. A large number of students spread out around the world to spread the Gospel of Christ. Among those students were several Lipscomb student-athletes.

Andrea “Andi” Thornton, a defender for the Lady Bison soccer team, made her third spring break trip to Baja, Mexico.

“I honestly couldn't imagine doing anything else on my spring break,” Thornton said. “Ever since my first year, I have felt God calling me to do mission work in Mexico, and lately have been praying about the possibility of doing a long term mission there after I graduate.”

During her time in Mexico Thornton was part of a group that painted a school playground in San Vicente. The group later traveled south to the town of San Quintin, on the west coast of the Mexican state of Baja, where they built a house, visited in the homes of church members, delivered food and other necessities and led a vacation Bible School for children, teens and adults. On Sunday after church there was a picnic for the entire church featuring hot dogs followed by what Thornton described as “an intense” game of soccer, which the mission team won.

“My favorite part of the trip is when we do house visits,” Thornton said. “House visits, to me, are where you build the best relationships and truly experience how our brothers and sisters down there live.

“The most amazing part of the trip is seeing how absolutely happy the people are. Compared to America, they have next to nothing. Yet, the smiles on their faces and their love for the Father are contagious.”

Faith lessons learned

Bison soccer player Evan McGee was also part of the group that went to San Vicente and San Quintin. Evan’s brother, Shea, and Drew Longinotti, also members of the Bison soccer team were also a part of the trip. Evan and Longinotti teamed up to teach a class for teenagers each night during vacation Bible school classes.

“We spent part of a day in San Vicente and spent the rest of the time in San Quintin,” McGee said. “Half of the group each day would work on the house we were building and half of the group made house visits. We would take food and clothing to the houses and spend time talking with the people.

“It was interesting to see how apparent their faith is. It was cool to see that. When you come back to America it is not the same. The true beliefs of people are not apparent in everybody’s lives.”

This was the second mission trip for McGee since he came to Lipscomb and his third overall. Phil Kinzer and Joe Simpson were the leaders of the group this spring. The response from the people made it all worthwhile for McGee.

“They really showed a lot of appreciation for us spending time with them,” McGee said. “They really enjoyed the house visits because it showed we cared about them and wanted to spend time with them and learn from them.”

McGee calls the trips eye-opening experiences that help a person realize what is really valuable in life. He has no problems with sacrificing traditional spring break experiences.

“They break things down to the simple aspects of life,” McGee said. “In America we have so many distractions that they don’t have there.

“It is really quite amazing to see God working in that area of the world. He’s apparent there. They are more reliant on God. They truly believe they wouldn’t make it each day without God.”

McGee came away with a renewed desire to let his beliefs be more outwardly known by those he comes in contact with.

“In Mexico when we were walking down the street we were a bunch of white guys who stuck out,” McGee said. “It made me think how much do I stick out here in America.

“As a Christian I should be sticking out more. I should be verbalizing my beliefs and faith more.”

Bringing the Gospel and better health

Austin Ray, a member of the Lipscomb track team, also made his third spring break mission trip. Ray, who plans on attending medical school, was part of a medical and dental mission group that worked in the Ulpan Valley in Guatemala. He was part of a group of approximately 25 that made the journey.

“It is a very rural, agrarian area of Guatemala outside the city of Coban,” Ray said. “It takes about two hours to get up into the mountains on dirt and gravel roads.”

Austin enjoys the isolation of the area. The mission team camped in tents, reminding him of his days as an Eagle Scout.

“When I think of a mission trip I think of not living in a hotel,” Ray said. “You have to live among the people to understand where they are coming from. It is everything I wanted it to be.”

The dental team spent time providing fluoride varnish to prevent cavities and strengthen teeth. Nutrition was also an emphasis for both the medical and dental units. His father, Keith Ray, a former javelin thrower at Lipscomb, is a dentist and was part of the trip. Austin rotated through the medical, dental and pharmacy areas as well as working with the children.

“They identify themselves as Mayans and they have really been oppressed,” Ray said. “The first time I went was, to my knowledge, the first year a medical team had been in that area. And they really need it. It has grown constantly each year. Our involvement through Lipscomb has really made a difference.”

The progress, which includes a clinic and stronger support from the country’s government, are some of the reasons Ray wants to continue making the trips.

“You can see their confidence grow,” Ray said. “It was a population that had never been served before. But they no longer feel as oppressed. They feel like they have a voice.

“There are three students who have gone each year. Every year we get so much done. That first year it was like we were going into the unknown.”

An emphasis on service

Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s director of athletics, is an avid supporter of student-athletes serving on mission trips during their time at the university. The men’s basketball team visited the Dominican Republic this past summer. The baseball and cross country teams have participated in recent mission efforts. The volleyball and softball teams are making plans for future mission trips.

“One of the dreams I have that I've shared with others is that I want to see the day when we can tell every recruit and his or her family that sometime within that person's four years as a student-athlete here, they will have the opportunity to go on such a trip,” Hutcheson said. “And I underline the word "every" because I think it is that important. 

“Whether they go halfway around the globe or even just a few states away, over and over again, we hear back from our student-athletes what a life-changing event such a trip was. Even among some of our most accomplished teams and individuals, we learn at the end of their time here, that trips like these rank right at the top of their list of memorable and meaningful times while here at LU.”

Hutcheson views mission trips as a major component of the overall development of student-athletes. He wants to see student-athletes grow in the 4 Cs - “classroom, competition, community and Christ.”

“We have often stated that we want every one of our student-athletes to grow in four areas while they are here - grow in the classroom, as competitors, as active members of the community around them, and in their journey toward Christ-likeness,” Hutcheson said. “And I really believe that trips like these touch all four of these areas. 

“They expose our student-athletes to different geographies, cultures and communities than they have experienced before.  They grow in appreciation for all of the opportunities that they've been given and that appreciation most often translates to our student-athletes committing to maximizing their opportunities as athletes. “

Discovering what is meaningful

Without exception student-athletes who serve in the mission fields, especially in areas where poverty is rampant, return home realizing just how little they need in their lives to be happy.

“They often have their eyes opened to the world of opportunity to serve their fellow man that is around them on a daily basis,” Hutcheson said. “They discover that their efforts, which once might have seemed insignificant to them, can make a difference in the lives of others.

“And finally, through their work, their experience, their increased awareness of the world around them and their reflection about what really is meaningful in this life, I believe they cannot help but think upon those things that would lead one closer to God - no matter what their starting point for those experiences might have been.”

Hutcheson points to the philosophies of former Lipscomb men’s basketball coach Don Meyer who has always stressed the importance of both attitude and effort.

“As an athlete, and sometimes even as a student, you learn that you cannot control many things in your life, but two things you can control are attitude and effort,” Hutcheson said. “Trips like these highlight this fact. 

“Often our student-athletes find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, in uncomfortable settings, maybe having little ability to communicate effectively, maybe not surrounded by the comfortable and the familiar. And yet, among all of those things that might make for a challenging week, they discover that a great attitude and a willingness to give a great effort go a long way.  Many times, they also see those truths borne out in the lives of those with whom they are working.”

There is no doubt that these experiences make them better students, better athletes and better people.

“They get to know people who have a far more difficult set of challenges in their lives than they, as student-athletes, will ever face,” Hutcheson said. “And yet, they also observe those people living happy, meaningful, productive lives no matter what the challenges. As a result, they come back with a commitment to make improvements in their own lives.”

Reset button

Brent High, Associate Athletic Director for Spiritual Formation, is working with student-athletes on the development of future mission trips, either as individuals or part of a team effort. He echoes the sentiments of Hutcheson.

“We have invested a significant number of hours and resources in educating our athletes and coaches about the opportunities to serve in the mission field both stateside and aboard,” High said. “Over the next 24 months I fully expect each and every one of our 17 teams to embark on some kind of short-term mission trip.

“Coaches and athletes that spend time in another context come back changed forever. They are more appreciative of what they have and the opportunities they've been afforded. They are more aware of people in need around them here in the United States. It's almost like hitting a reset button, allowing them to take stock of what's truly important in life and what isn't.