At the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy, and your eyes sparkling. The origin of that saying is unknown, but 24 youth and 10 adults from Central United Methodist Church left Milbank on June 5 to put themselves to the test.
They packed their air mattresses, work clothes, and a few other necessities into four vehicles and spent the next 13 and half hours on the highway. They arrived in St. Louis eager to spread some sunshine and the Gospel.
According to the U.S.Census Bureau, two of 10 people in St. Louis fell below the poverty line in 2020, so there was no shortage of Missourians who needed assistance or jobs to be tackled.
Central’s youth pastor, Levi Waddell, says the group of young missionaries and their chaperones partnered with the Youth Works organization and offered a helping hand through the Urban Reach program that presents a free, summer-long Bible school for kids who live in one of the top five most dangerous areas of St. Louis.
Then, on June 9, the Milbank missionaries saddled up again for the 900-mile drive back to South Dakota. They returned with sore muscles, but also with a renewed sense of gratitude and a host of stories that are both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. You can hear them for yourself this Sunday, July 17, during the worship services at Central United Methodist Church at 201 South 5th Street. Members of the group will share their thoughts and their experiences. Everyone is welcome. The traditional service starts at 8:30 a.m. and the blended service is at 10 a.m.
Alexis Ninneman, one of the high school students on the mission said, “To be honest, I was a little nervous about this trip. I knew we were going to be in a dangerous area. But, I prayed about my anxieties, and the Lord provided. I was surprised that I never felt unsafe. I was never scared. I felt protected the entire trip.”
Waddell added, “I knew the poverty of the inner city would be bad, but it was beyond what I imagined. It was crazy to see the beaten up and rundown housing projects silhouetted by ginormous skyscrapers and fancy buildings just a few blocks away.”
Hallie Schulte, another high school student on the mission trip said, “I was overwhelmed by the number of people that were in need and how little they had.” Her mother, Ginny Tostenson, was one of the chaperones. Tostenson said, “The people didn’t have much, but they were who we went to serve.”
The young missionaries apparently rose to the occasion because Waddell remarked, “I was so impressed with both the youth and the adults. No complaining, just doing whatever needed to be done. They turned tough situations into ones where they were able to laugh and enjoy it.”
Tostenson agreed, “I was surprised by our kids and how hard they worked. They just stepped right up and didn’t hesitate with anything.”
The group did everything from picking up garbage at a local park to cleaning out abandoned apartments at Lydia’s House, a home for abused women. They also painted the principal’s office at the Lutheran Church of Atonement, where the Milbank missionaries camped out on the classroom floors at night to sleep. Ninneman said, “With the help of our Lord, our groups accomplished a lot in the week we were in St. Louis.”
“One morning, we helped with a Bible Club for kids in the poorest neighborhood,” Waddell said, “It also has the highest crime rate in St. Louis.” Tostenson participated in that project and said, “Hallie and I were in the same group and helped at the Bible Club. It was held in an empty grass lot, and any kid could come and play games, do a craft, hear about the Bible, and get a snack.”
“One day we helped an older lady clean up her backyard and she was the person who had the biggest impact on me.” Ninneman said. “Her yard was filled with vines, trash, and bushes. Thirteen of us spent six-plus hours picking up the yard and basement. This kind woman was so grateful. She talked about how she sang in a choir and then she sang to us. She even gave one of our group members some old records. One was the Jackson 5! In return, we bought her some beautiful flowers. She loved them!”
“One of our other projects,” Waddell said, “was to organize, sort, and shelve food and clothing at a food pantry and thrift store called Feed My People. We also assisted at the Dream Center.”
“The Dream Center,” Tostenson said, “is a part of the nationwide Joyce Meyer Ministries. Members of our group worked in the food pantry to help people shop for their food. The other group sorted donated clothing and put them in appropriate categories so they can eventually be sold in the clothing boutique they are starting.”
The Central group also helped to cook meals for people in need at Campus Kitchen. “We cooked meatloaf and mashed potatoes and made a fruit salad, a veggie salad, and an apple cake. The food was all donated by Trader Joe’s,” Tostenson said,
“During some of the ministries, the groups found themselves ‘behind the scenes’ but they also got the opportunity to love people face to face,” Waddell said. “Not everyone is someone to be out front and working with people, so it was good for the youth to realize that whatever gifts God has given them, there is a time and place for them.”
As always, when you give, you also receive. Waddell explained, “This mission opened our youths’ eyes to see just how good they have it. Not to judge someone, but to just extend love and grace.”
“While we were in St. Louis, we talked a lot about how the people there are different from our community back home in South Dakota,” Ninneman said. “The truth is we’re all God’s people, and we are loved equally. In God’s eyes, we are equal. Just because one may be less fortunate than another does not mean that they are less loved.”
In particular, Waddell remembered when a Milbank group was working with youth in the most impoverished neighborhood in Missouri. ”Mrs.Tina was the lady in charge of this ministry and my group consisted of mainly high school boys. Most of those boys had tears in their eyes when we left that day. I know one will be sharing this experience, so I don’t want to say too much about it.” You can hear his story on Sunday.
Many other moments were also poignant for different reasons and for different people. “What touched me the most was the worship time in the evening because we had time to think and reflect on our day,” Schulte said.
“Honestly, I felt most impacted when we were with our own group at the church during our worship times… the connections and bonds we made,” claimed Tostenson. She recalled one of the most moving experiences for her occurred the last night the group stayed in St. Louis.” We had a foot washing ceremony and it was powerful and touching. The Youthworks leaders washed the feet of the adult leaders from our group, and then we, in turn, washed the feet of the youth.” It was a gracious farewell for fellow Christians and a fitting reminder that Jesus was the first missionary, but everyone is called to serve.
Members of the Central United Methodist missionary group included: Back Row- Morgan Strain, Jessica Weets, Carter Liebe, Nicci Stengel, Mallory Falk, Ashlyn O’Farrell, Callie Fuller, Kenadee Mueller, Keira Steffen, Sophia Homrighausen, Ashlynn Lamp, Kalli Moser, Jody Ninneman, and Levi Waddell. Middle Row- John Madsen, Wade Falk, Kaley Withers, Layten Osowski, Braylen Bowsher, Isaac Cordell, Jack Howard, Dylan Bohn, Britani Madsen, and Kristy Liebe. Front Row- Noah Falk, Ginny Tostenson, Cheyenne Stengel, Elyssa Tomac, Hallie Schulte, Hailey Hupke, Maiah Brown, Alexis Ninneman, Kayle Figueroa, and Jocelyn Kettwig.
Photos Courtesy of Ginny Tostenson