Students become hands and feet of Christ during semester abroad

study abroad service project in Peru

Studying abroad is a time of self-discovery, global learning and life-changing experiences. For a group of students spending the fall semester in Montevideo, Uruguay, study abroad has given a new perspective on fulfilling ACU's mission of Christian service and leadership throughout the world.

Our participation in the service projects showed us a different side of life than what we typically see through our 'tourist' lenses.

During the semester-long programs, ACU Study Abroad groups take one weeklong excursion with all students and faculty. While most groups further their cultural lens through touring new places, the Montevideo group gave their time serving the people of Lima, Peru, alongside ACU missionaries.

The group of 11 students learned about the similarities and differences between cultures in South America by stepping out of their cultural comfort zones to serve the people of Lima.

Katie Cranfill, a sophomore Spanish and communications major from Copperas Cove, Texas, describes her experience serving in Lima: "By requiring us to put down our barriers, our participation in the service projects showed us a different side of life than what we typically see through our 'tourist' lenses. It's not always comfortable to start a conversation with a stranger in a foreign language, but when you do there is so much humility and love to be learned."

Giving 'breath of life' to Peru

A group of ACU alumni have been serving as missionaries in Paraiso since 2009. The team consists of Lee Fletcher ('99), Stephanie (Grigg) Fletcher ('01), Justin Thompson ('04), Alison (Orozco) Thompson ('06), Mark Clancy ('80) and John Mark Davidson ('86).

Clancy and Davidson, who both completed their Master of Divinity at ACU, dreamed up the mission to Peru. Others started joining this team through their connection to Clancy and Davidson. "It's pretty neat how all this worked out, as we like to say that we are fortunate to have been friends before becoming teammates," says Lee Fletcher, president of Aliento de Vida.

Aliento de Vida, which means breath of life, is the name of both the church and the nongovernmental organization formed by the ACU missionaries in Paraiso.  The team has been blessed to partner with stateside churches, individuals and continued mentorship from ACU's Halbert Institute of Missions.

Paraiso began as a squatter's settlement and continues to have new "invasions" of people moving in from other parts of the country. The neighborhood received running water, sewage services and electricity only within the last few years.

The ACU missionaries have invested in a neighborhood of approximately 70 families in an attempt to meet physical and spiritual needs. The missionaries have conducted two medical campaigns, built multiple houses and a community center that additionally serves as a soup kitchen.  

They also teach weekly at a local school and have a volunteer program made up of expatriates, which conduct workshops for parents to help them better equip their children to confront social issues such as drugs, gangs and abuse. They have blanket and clothing drives, provide annual Christmas giveaways for the neighborhood children and host weekly Bible studies as well as children's activities and church service on Sundays.

"My favorite part of serving the Peruvians is meeting the tremendous physical needs that exist here and doing so in the name of Christ," says Fletcher. "The claim each person makes about their faith is rarely more powerful than when we reach out to those in need and do so because that's what we learned from the Lord's example."

A different kind of vacation

Students worked side-by-side with the missionaries in Lima on two service projects. Students accompanied missionaries and members of their church up into the hills behind Lima, where some of the poorest areas are located. Students helped clear the stairway that serves as a main pathway for the surrounding community of mud, debris and vegetation. 

"These stairs go hundreds of feet up a hillside and are the only route people living there can take to their homes. Many of these steps were so caked with dirt that they were dangerous to climb on," says Cranfill.

Another afternoon, ACU students were allowed to go into a local public school and teach English classes to elementary students. That interaction with Peruvian children was sophomore Jonathan Parker's favorite activity in Peru. Parker is a political science major with a concentration in criminal justice from Middletown, Maryland.

"One of the things that I was able to share with the children is the difficulty of learning a language," he recalls. "The class that I taught was one of their first English lessons. I understand how hard it is to learn a language after being here in South America and Uruguay, so I could easily relate to the elementary aged students in their struggle to learn English."

The study abroad students also assisted in a children's Sunday school service, repaired furniture and visited with locals.

Abigail Rose, sophomore social work major from Cave Creek, Ariz., enjoyed the time she got to spend visiting with both the missionaries and the local people.

"Up on that hill in Lima, I was talking and working with the church members and missionaries from Peru and the U.S. alike, and I felt such a strong bond of community and family with them. We had all just met that morning on an overcrowded bus, and we couldn't speak much of each other's languages, but they felt like my family, and it was so beautiful to be the hands and feet of Christ on that hill together," says Rose.

Fletcher says the ACU group not only offered an extra pair of hands to help with the work, but also served as an encouragement to the missionaries serving year-round.

"The ACU group helped us by bringing a sense of excitement, a boost if you will, to the work, as well as a reminder to the church body that the body of Christ is worldwide," says Fletcher. "It is always an encouragement to know that the Lord is working all over the planet and that the faith we have is shared by literally billions of people."

Refocusing priorities

Although this group of 11 students spent their "vacation" time serving others, the students collectively feel they were blessed through the experience.

"Doing the service projects really brought back into focus my priorities about how I want to live in Christ - that even when I am on vacation, it is not about me," says Rose.

"I love that we spent a portion of our group vacation time serving others," Rose continues. "I would have had a different mindset about Peru if we had just done the tourist thing the whole time. But we got out in the community with other Peruvians and interacted on a relational level, and I feel like I have a more complete picture of that culture than I would get from merely seeing the sights."

Jennifer Hulett, junior math major from Castle Rock, Colo., says of her experiene, "I was able to get to know Peruvian people in their comfort zone. Since we went into where they lived, we had the best opportunities to see who they really were because they didn't feel the need to put on a face to meet 'the Americans.'

"Studying abroad to me really is all about learning how to interact with a different culture and people that aren't like me. I need to learn to love these people because Jesus loves them just as much as he loves me," says Hulett. "I learned to love with my heart and my hands, and I hope that I have made an impact on those I was able to serve."

Learn more about ACU's Study Abroad program

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