“Mission work is not so much what you say, but what you do. And maybe not even what you do, but that you’re there.”
Those are the words of Effie VanderHelm, one of the first volunteers with Cultivate, a mission experience for 18- to 25-year-olds. Through Cultivate, young people partner with missionaries in the Reformed Church in America for a summer or a full year and see how God is at work in another part of the world.
VanderHelm spent last summer on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in Mescalero, New Mexico, serving alongside Mark and Miriam Vellinga, missionaries at Mescalero Reformed Church. It didn’t take long for VanderHelm to realize that simply “being there”—building relationships—was really what mattered.
She codirected the church’s vacation Bible school (VBS) with Noelle Jacobs, a seminary intern from Western Theological Seminary, who has volunteered on the reservation six times over the past six years.
“VBS is the biggest program of the year for Mescalero Reformed Church and a tremendous cultivator of faith in the very young lives of the Mescalero community,” says Jacobs. “I’ve heard the words of faith and hope that come out of the mouths of these kids—it blows me away every time!”
VanderHelm and Jacobs worked with the church’s high school students to lead VBS. Observing low levels of self-confidence among the Mescalero teenagers, the two women encouraged the high schoolers and helped them to recognize their own skills and to increase their confidence as leaders.
Within weeks, the students’ leadership was tested: the youth group left on a trip of their own to Apache, Oklahoma, to lead a three-day VBS at Apache Reformed Church. Though VanderHelm and Jacobs didn’t accompany the group, they learned afterward how deftly the high schoolers led the VBS.
“We were so proud of them! It was by no act of ours, but God telling us to encourage them because they were capable,” says VanderHelm. “They came back and told us the stories, and we just had to thank Jesus! He showed them himself, and [the students] did it themselves. We just built relationships.”
They also built relationships by inviting young women from the church into their apartment. On these “Girls’ Nights,” says Jacobs, they had “ice cream, scavenger hunts, dance parties, and honest conversations about life and God’s unique purpose for each of us.”
These nights were more beloved than VanderHelm and Jacobs realized. Only four people had said they could come to the final get-together—but, as VanderHelm and Jacobs drove around picking girls up in the church van, 11 girls crammed in!
That was fine with both VanderHelm and Jacobs.
“[We] knew that if we wanted to start true discipleship, we needed to live into a ministry of availability and hospitality—a practice of presence to these girls whenever and wherever we were,” says Jacobs.
VanderHelm agrees: “It was really a great time for us to just hang out with them and tell them that it’s okay to have fun. They don’t interact a lot with adults, and even with each other, [there’s] not a lot of friendship interaction.” Within the community, daily life is centered around family, so even the young people that go to school together do not know each other well.
VanderHelm’s own faith grew over the summer; she says it was a season of waiting on God. She had just finished college and had two potential jobs at home lined up, but both fell through. At the same time, many people were telling her to become a teacher. She didn’t really want to do that, but she says she prayed about it and gave it to God; now she teaches algebra at Wonderful College Prep Academy, a public charter school near her hometown in California.
The Cultivate experience gave VanderHelm a more nuanced picture of mission.
“Mission work is not about you. It’s about God and what he’s going to do in your life and others’ lives,” she says. “You don’t go on a mission trip for other people, you go for yourself. Because you learn so much about yourself, your walk with God grows so much more than you could possibly imagine.”
Jennifer Knott is a former writer and editor for the Reformed Church in America’s communication team.