College, as the old cliché goes, is a different world. It’ s a chance to meet people from various cultures and to gain perspective on life.
This summer, three college students from Northeast Mississippi embarked on travels to different worlds in a more literal sense. They went to serve the poor but along the way they learned a lot about the world and how they could make a difference.
“It was probably the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my life,” said Ben Long, a sophomore in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi.
What started as a language immersion trip for college credit turned into a life-changing experience for the Corinth native.
Long spent a month learning Spanish with friends in Costa Rica but when his time was up he felt restless. Since nothing back home demanded his immediate attention he hoped a plane to Guatemala. Despite being pretty much alone, Long threw himself headlong into helping at hospitals and orphanages.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” he said, recalling how his shaky Spanish and willingness to do whatever was needed helped him navigate the native culture for almost two months.
“I just trusted God was leading me in the right direction,” he said.
Trust in God also guided Sara Beth Davis into a life-changing experience overseas. Davis, an elementary education major at Itawamba Community College, recently got back from a week in Malawi where she was working with YouTurn Ministries, an Ohio-based missions organization. She hiked 12 miles a day through mud hut villages spreading the gospel.
She even tried her hand at a little native cooking.
“At the orphanage we cooked a dish called ‘sema’ in a pot over a fire. It’s kind of like grits,” said Davis, laughing. “We cut up the meat from a cow they’d just butchered. It really makes you appreciate the grocery store.”
Maria Presley of Shannon started the summer in Mozambique working with AIDS patients. A grant from Emory University where she’s enrolled in divinity school allowed her to help destitute women and to study ethnic and religious conflicts. After a month of working with native people, Presley set out alone across western Africa.
“I just tried to engage in as many conversations as I could and to learn as much as I could about how people talk about conflict and how they deal with it,” she said.
Africa and Central America aren’t exactly Panama City Beach. They’re not teeming with college kids living it up on summer break. Davis, Long and Presley all had other options for how to spend their summers but all said it was important that they did something meaningful.
“I didn’t want my summer to be about me,” said Long.
Presley’s motivation stemmed from her belief that everyone is “called to place ourselves outside ourselves and to push beyond what makes us comfortable.”
The three students all came from strong, Christian backgrounds.
Long had been involved in his youth group at Corinth First Presbyterian Church for years. Steve Guyton, a longtime friend and mentor said the pre-med student could have spent the summer knocking around with his brothers in the Sigma Chi Fraternity but his faith demanded more.
“He’s just got great leadership skills and a real desire to serve,” said Guyton. “He wants to make a difference.”
Davis directed games to children at Blue Springs Baptist Church where her father is the pastor. “She’s always made her walk with Christ the central focus of her life,” said the Rev. Neil Davis of his daughter.
Presley, a member of Palmetto United Methodist Church, said since childhood her self-identity has always been wrapped up in God’s plan for her life.
“She has a real gift for understanding how religion and ethics intersect,” said the Rev. Reagan Miskelly, who is mentoring Presley through the candidacy program for ministry in the United Methodist Church. “She’s out there looking for creative solutions to problems that people say can’t be solved.”
As devout Christians the three also shared sensitivity to the suffering of others. It was on a previous mission trip to the Philippines that the brutal reality of poverty first captured Davis’ imagination. This summer she watched children in the village of Natahanje kick around melted wads of trash in place of soccer balls.
“We’re so fortunate to have been born in America,” she said. “Those kids had nothing – no mama or daddy, barely enough to eat. We just don’t understand how fortunate we are.”
Long traveled with his father to Ecuador two years ago and realized how much clutter Americans accumulate. When he returned from Guatemala this summer he purged his closets and gave many of his clothes to charity. He’s trying to live simply at Ole Miss.
On the plains of Africa, Presley encountered the same problem she saw working in inner-city Birmingham, that women and children suffer most often, and most severely from the ravages of poverty. The former president of Chi Omega Sorority at Birmingham-Southern College said it’s important to have fun during college, but women throughout the world need help.
“They’re the face of homelessness,” she said. “We can’t allow ourselves to forget them.”
Answering the call
The rigors of anatomy and organic chemistry don’t leave Long much free time, but he’s excited about the possibility of one day using his medical training to serve the poor.
While the doctors were tending sick babies in the Guatemalan orphanage, Long was hanging ceilings, but despite being up to his elbows in grunt work he still learned something he couldn’t have gotten from books.
“I had such a rounded experience,” he said. “I really saw the face of Christ in how those doctors cared for the kids.”
In the meantime he’s considering partnering in mission work with friends from Madison United Methodist Church, friends who – almost unbelievably – he happened to run into atop a volcano in Guatemala this summer after they’d been corresponding for months.
Davis has got all the education classes she can handle right now. She also enjoys working with the Baptist Student Union and playing intramural sports. Becoming a teacher will keep her summers free for return trips to Africa.
“Children are my passion,” she said. She missed the first week of class at ICC but she’s not sweating it. When she starts to get anxious, she remembers dancing with the village children.
“I didn’t understand many of the words to their songs, but I understood the joy and the smiles,” she said. “They had nothing, but they were as happy as any people I’ve ever seen. They were hungry for the gospel.”
Presley’s course of study at Candler School of Theology is focused on social justice. She wants to be ordained but she’s not sure what the future will hold, perhaps helping college students manage transitions.
Her work with International Relief and Development has shown her that while some clichés are true, like the one about college being a “different world,” others aren’t.
“The temptation with a lot of people when they’re dealing with different religions and cultures is to say that we’re all essentially the same,” she said.
“I’m pretty adamantly against that. In the end, we’re all vastly different from one another, and no matter those differences, we’re going to have to get along. I think there’s a kind of holy wisdom in that.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 578-1510 or email@example.com.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal