It was almost as if I had checked God in with my luggage. Sunday morning surprised me and as the sun rose through the icy chill of an early winter freeze, I was barreling towards the Austin airport, a shivering passenger in a friend’s black Volkswagen. I blinked the sleep from my eyes. Had I packed everything? Had I remembered my passport, my emergency credit card, my hand sanitizer? Were they going to hold me up in security because I had more than three carry on bags? These normal thoughts flutter through my head at the start of any trip. However, this routine beginning was just the approach to the gateway of an extraordinary adventure – an adventure that I felt less than prepared for. Less than 12 hours into the future, I would be racing around an almost deserted lobby at the Tampa Bay docks in order to check in and get on the ship before it left me behind. But then, I get ahead of myself.
Three friends and I had planned for months to go on the North American Division’s “Cruise With a Mission“. The 2007 trip was an inaugural event – this was the first time that a young adult gathering was being planned within the framework of a cruise/mission trip. The uniqueness and simmering absurdity of the concept intrigued us. We had never been on a cruise before and it had been a while (or never) since any of us had been on a mission trip. Most of all, the prospect of meeting over 300 other young adults was exciting. We’d become complacent, somewhat, in our situation (there is a growing handful of young adults at our church) and we were thirsty for a fresh experience. So, we signed up, checked our passports, paid our fees, and went on with our lives. Somehow, the thought that we were doing this for God was secondary. Of course, the people we talked to were intrigued by what we were doing and gave us blessings. However, Life took over, as it always does, and the cruise faded into memory as “something that will happen” in a few months, weeks, and then, finally days. Suddenly, the flurry of emails from the CWaM office blanketed our inboxes and we knew something was about to happen. As part of the outreach effort, each participant was asked to purchase toys, trinkets, toothbrushes, school supplies, and other things that we would give to the children that we would meet at each port. These would become the contents of our “mission shoe boxes”. We were also asked to bring medical supplies (bandages, vitamins, pain killers) as part of a “mission suitcase”. A few of us made a couple shopping trips together to find supplies. I stayed up late several nights in a row to make sure that I packed just enough and no more. A friend graciously planned us a “bon voyage” lunch after church the Sabbath before we left. We made arrangements for travel to and from the airport. People pitched in with last minute support for our trip. We anxiously printed out our boarding passes and stacked up our itineraries with our passports and wallets so we were sure not to forget anything…
…and then, it was Sunday morning, December 16, 2007. Poor and naive planning has led three of our party (myself included) to book tickets that would make us arrive at the Tampa Airport at 2:30 pm. This was problematic because the boat was scheduled to leave at 5 pm. We could not miss it! Fortunately, despite all the angst, none of our flights were canceled or delayed. No one had a heart attack on the plane, an event that would cause the flight to be diverted to another destination for an emergency landing (this was actually a concern of one of our group, as he was certain that he was not going to make the cruise). God was taking care of us each step of the way. Through patience at the baggage claim, waiting for the late shuttle to the dock, and listening as the dock hands reprimanded us for being late, we finally made it onto the MS Veendam, our home for a week.
I’m going to skip all the impressions of the ship (it’s size, understated luxury, friendly staff, and amenities) and go straight to the impact of the Cruise with a Mission program. The entire program was put together and carried out by young adults from all around the world. The leadership team was amazing – they had to deal with all sorts of unanticipated circumstances. Have you ever wondered what goes into a well-produced worship service? I had the opportunity to watch the preparations first hand because, as part of the praise band, I had to be up at 5:30 am to make a 6 am practice session. Most impressive to me was how focused and centered everything was on God. Young people came together without mandates or strict rules and put together a worship service that was streamlined, professional, and praise worthy. For one week, in various instances, I got to see what it was like to “give your best to God”. It wasn’t only the music (under the expert leadership of Michaela Lawrence from Andrews University), the slick video presentations (put together on a nightly basis from a small staff who apparently didn’t sleep), and the awesome messages (given by speakers such as Renee Stepp, Eddie Hippolyte, and Matthew Gamble) that made a 7:30 am worship service the perfect way to start the day. It was also the laughter of old friends bumping into each other, surprised because they had not anticipated the other person being on the trip. It was the fellowship of meeting complete strangers at dinner and getting to witness to them about what we were doing. It was the act of digging deep and revealing our hurts and struggles to new prayer partners in our nightly small group meetings. It was the feeling that came over me while standing on the top deck of the ship and staring out into the blackness of a night swallowing the sea – even out there, in the middle of the ocean, God could use a diverse group of young adults to change the lives of everyone that we came into contact with.
The Cruise with a Mission stops included Key West, Florida; Belize City, Belize; Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala; and Cozumel, Mexico. Key West and Cozumel were “off days” in which we could do whatever we wanted. However, the days spent on shore in Belize and Guatemala were when over 300 of us split into groups to tackle projects such as park cleanup, city beautification, construction, Vacation Bible School, and medical clinics. Since this cruise was the first time everyone had done anything like this (the leadership included), we hit some rough patches. On our first mission day, we discovered that the customs officials in Belize would not allow our medical supplies to leave the ship. In addition, they wanted an itemized list of every single item in the mission shoe boxes that we were bringing ashore. Remember the shoe boxes? Each person on the trip had brought at least three boxes, each filled with toys and supplies. To itemize everything in each box would have taken several hours and would have completely destroyed any hope of getting off of the ship. I was in the lobby getting ready to exit the ship when I heard the news. The day was gray and threatening rain and we had also learned that we would have to take tenders from the ship to the port (a tender is a smaller boat used to taxi passengers from a ship to the shore). People were agitated and cranky. However, a group of girls near me set their stuff down said, “We need to pray.” Right there, we formed a huddle and prayed that the customs officials would allow us to get off the ship so that we could continue our mission. Breaking the huddle, we went back to milling around and waiting as the other ship’s passengers got off to enjoy a day of shopping or scuba diving. Soon though, our leader, Japhet De Oliveira, emerged from his meeting and held up a crumpled piece of paper. “Guys,” he said, motioning at the scribbles on the paper, “they’ve just signed a waiver for us. We’re ok – we’re getting off the ship!” Relieved, we queued up for the tenders and before we knew it, the MS Veendam had faded into the gray mist. Belize was just in front of us.
Each person in the Austin group was assigned to a different area at each port. In Belize, my group went to the Liberty Children’s Home, an orphanage in the town of Ladyville. Chris’ group was supposed to construct a shed for kids at another orphanage so that they would have a place to play when it was raining. Ismael’s team was taking a group of orphans to the zoo for the day. Munira became the last minute leader of her group and was slated to beautify a city park. The rain changed all of those plans. Chris and his team arrived at their site to find that the foundation for the shed had not been poured. Much of the building material had also not been delivered. In the same moment, it seemed like there was both a lot to do and nothing to do. Their team ended up grabbing shovels and digging dirt out of the hole that would soon contain the structure’s foundation. Ismael and his group actually had a great time at the zoo in spite of the downpour. At my site, the rain prevented the painting team from putting a refresh coat of paint on the children’s dorm rooms. However, we had a great time inside the school building with Vacation Bible School. I led the song service (fortunately, they all spoke English!) before we watched some other young adults put on a skit about the creation of the world. Then, we broke out into stations for the rest of the day. The stations included a dental station (teaching kids to take care of their teeth), a Bible story station, a memory verse game, and a craft table. I even got to sample some food that the teachers of the school graciously made for us. I was apprehensive about eating in a foreign country, so I prayed that God would not allow me to get sick from the food. It turned out to be the tastiest plate of mashed potatoes I’ve ever had! The school decided that the children would wait until Christmas to open up all of the gifts we had brought them. While we were sad that we would not get to watch their faces as they opened the shoe boxes, we were glad that the 22 children would have so many presents! Munira and her team weren’t able to beautify the park in the rain so they switched gears and went off the beaten track. Under Munira’s leadership, they found a hospital and ministered to the patients inside. This unplanned detour turned out to be an amazing opportunity to be lights to people in need.
The next day, we docked in Guatemala. Perhaps it was the weather (sunny and hot) or the slightly less dangerous looking school buses that would be carrying us to our assignments that lifted our spirits. It could also be that we didn’t have problems with customs this time. Whatever it was, the day in Santo Tomas de Castilla was awesome. My group was headed to a Seventh-Day Adventist church about half an hour inland from the port. We would be conducting Vacation Bible School for the neighborhood kids. Munira’s group, now with another leader, would be painting the interior of a school. Ismael and Chris would be at other churches/schools to participate in Vacation Bible School as well. We had the benefit of several bilingual young adults in my group, so I didn’t have to worry about butchering Spanish during the song service (I led out again). Over 100 kids sang and clapped along as we sang at the top of our lungs. We then broke out into the same stations for VBS. Even in this poor area, it was hard not to notice the beauty that seemed to burst out of every crack in the wall. The kids were beautiful and their parents proudly led them around to the various classrooms to participate in our program. The sky was electric and made everything almost neon. At the end of the program, we handed out shoe boxes to all the children. This time, we faced the dilemma of not having enough boxes for all of the kids (that, and the fact that the children would run home and tell their friends that we were giving away gifts. They’d all come running back for more!). I think that God worked a little miracle for us, though, and multiplied the gifts so that everyone left with something.
When not involved in projects, we were immersed in an atmosphere of fellowship and worship. On our two “at sea” days (Tuesday and Sabbath), we had the opportunity to attend workshops given by pastors and professors who had been invited to join the experience. Some of the workshop topics included: “Back to the Future” (the Sabbath); “Getting to know Ellen White”; reaching post-moderns; and “The 5 temptations that singles face”. The leadership team also set up a prayer room that was open for prayer and solitude. Throughout all of this, it was nearly impossible not to feel energized and inspired to take some of the experience back home. Over the course of the week, I could feel people coming closer together in a spirit of willingness and anticipation. It was evident that all of us wanted to do more.
For me, the part of the trip that made the most impact on my life was the dinner times that Munira and I spent with Ann and Pat. The dinner seating for the cruise was somewhat randomized, so we were not necessarily seated with other Cruise with a Mission folks. At first, we were disappointed. All of that faded, however, when we sat down next to two lovely older ladies. Ann and Pat are friends who live in the same retirement community in Florida. They have been on numerous cruises together and this was the first one in which they were surrounded by so many young people. The four of us hit it off right away. Our conversations were interesting and filled with laughter as we shared experiences from our lives. Over and over again, Ann and Pat commented on how they were so happy that we were at their table. Repeatedly, they said that we had made their trip a memorable experience. They were also impressed with how the CWaM group behaved. We were able to share some of our ministry and message with them and as a result, they attended one of our morning meetings. They loved the session and felt that the music and the message spoke directly to them. What an amazing testimony! I think that often, we think that older people don’t understand us or the way in which we want to worship or be involved. However, we saw first hand how two people chose to be open to our presentations and in turn, loved every minute of it. By the end of the cruise, we had become very close and were sad to part company. They have invited us to their homes if we’re ever in the area. I praise God for our time with Ann and Pat and hope that He used us to bring them into closer fellowship with Him.
Sooner than anyone anticipated, the cruise was over. On our last night, we gathered on the Lido Deck (the restaurant deck) and hung out with our new friends for one last time. Looking around, I realized that even though I had been in a rush to get on this boat, and even though I hadn’t really prepared myself spiritually for the voyage, God had not been packed away and forgotten. He was in every single person that was now on the deck exchanging contact information with soon-to-be absent friends. He was in the programs and workshops. He was guiding the unexpected leaders to perform mighty acts and He was whispering to those of us who were discouraged that we “hadn’t done enough”. There’s a first time for everything, it is said, and I think that the maiden voyage of Cruise with a Mission has set a precedent for upcoming trips. I praise God for crazy ideas such as this one, and I hope that this is just the beginning. Back on land after the cruise, we all had to adjust to the stillness of terra firma. For several days afterwards, my sea legs would deceive me into thinking that I was still gently rocking on the MS Veendam. That feeling, thankfully, has faded. However, I’m trying to hang on to the feeling of fellowship that lingers within my memories. Somehow, I think we all got a tiny taste of what it will be like in Heaven. I’m looking forward to never leaving friends but instead being in constant fellowship and praise. However, this is the present and we have to do more than “make the best of it.” The blessing was there for the taking, and now, it is up to all of us to go out and share it with the world.