Originally created 06/05/99

Spiritual travelers



For Chris Norris, the summer of 1988 was as life-changing as winning the lottery.

He and other student volunteers from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., signed on as short-term missionaries that year. Most appointments were no more exotic than an Arkansas state park, with one exception -- a Foreign Missions Board job in Naples, Italy.

After the group prayed over the assignments, the 19-year-old Mr. Norris was chosen to serve an English-speaking church in Naples. "My job specs fit the position," he said. A voice major, he sang in Italian, though his pronunciation was better than his understanding.

When he resumed studies, he knew he wanted to work as a minister in a local church. "It was a testing ground for me," said the Rev. Norris, 30, minister of music at West Acres Baptist Church in Evans.

Teen mission trips have captured the imagination of other young adults in Augusta who serve or want to serve in ministry.

It is easy to get caught up with everyday struggles during the school year and lose sight of what is important, said Emily Martin, 17, a rising senior at Greenbrier High School in Evans. "You forget what you are living for."

Emily wants to enter the mission field or the ministry after college.

She will make mission trips this summer to Honduras, where she will dig latrines, repack mud in house walls and work in schools, and then to the North Carolina mountains and Carolina Cross Connection.

Cross Connection gave her a first taste of missions at age 13. She and other young men and women painted houses, built porches, repaired ceilings, did yard work or just talked to the poor and elderly people they helped. "A lot of times it was just talking to them" that made a difference in their lives -- and in hers, she said.

The time in the mountains made her realize how comfortable her life is and gave her a desire to serve again. "It is the best thing ever," she said. "It is like a hole inside of me is filled every time I go back."

Most mountain people know the Christian message, but it was new to many people she met in Russia during a two-week stint two years ago. Because of the language barrier, they told the Gospel in wordless plays. Russian believers then gave testimonies.

The plays were generally well-received, said Emily, who attends Wesley United Methodist Church in Evans. "You were able to see how you changed somebody's life."

Meeting the needs of others on mission trips is what touched John Franks, 26, director of youth ministries at First Presbyterian Church. "There's something about service that gets in your blood," he said.

He helped clean up McClellanville, S.C., after Hurricane Hugo struck the area in 1989, when he was about 13. It was the first of five or six mission trips he took during his high school years in Greenville, S.C.

In Trinidad and Tobago, he helped with vacation Bible school and construction at a Christian camp. He was struck by the idea that he actually met the people's needs and with the awareness that the body of Christ is all over the world, he said. "The people need things -- you help them -- but they have every bit or more of a vibrant relationship with Christ."

He will join two of the three adult-youth teams First Presbyterian will send this summer. "Missions are not a work of the youth, but of the whole church," he said.

First Presbyterian supports some 100 missionaries throughout the world and lists their names on the front of its weekly bulletin.

Some 14 young people and adults will go to Jamaica to participate in an Evangelism Explosion, where they will train native leaders. "They can go into the schools in Kingston (to evangelize) there," he said.

A group of 24 adults and youth will go to Vancouver, Canada, and the same number will go to Merida, Mexico, to assist missions in those countries.

Before First Presbyterian youths can go on foreign missions, they must work with Agape Ministries, an outreach to Augusta. "Missions begin here at home," said Mr. Franks. "It's not when you are crossing the ocean in a plane that makes you a missionary, but what you do here."

The Rev. Norris enjoyed his experience in Naples, from bartering in the market to traveling. When he took his youth group on a day trip, it was to Rome. When the European Baptist Convention had a youth conference, the group went to Interlaken, Switzerland.

The success he had in working with the young families he met in Naples showed him that the local church was his calling, he said.

"I was and am willing to go into the foreign missions, but that has not been the case yet," said the Rev. Norris. "But I am still young."

Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.