“Instead of Tijuana, Mexico…we will be driving to Denver, Colorado!” These words met a chorus of unsuppressed groans. A missions trip to Denver, Colorado sounded about as useless and boring as staying home. My entire youth group thought the same thing: what work could we possibly do in Denver? If only Mexico weren’t so “dangerous.”
We grudgingly put our doubts behind us and ventured out before the sun rose, groggy and packed into two 15-passenger vans. The drive lasted hours, but we didn’t notice. Twenty-four teenagers screamed songs until their throats protested, played games we had not revisited since our elementary years, and collapsed into short naps. Though the trip felt short, we grew restless at the sight of the setting sun. After countless stops to gobble down greasy hamburgers, run in a cold sweat to the bathroom, and even worship, the sign for Denver zoomed into view.
The first few days in Denver caused us to ram our feet so far in our mouths our throats throbbed. Where we had imagined an urban, “got-it-together” city, we met devastating poverty and drug addiction. Shock and guilt mixed sickeningly in my stomach. The faces of screaming, hungry children living in filthy apartments burns vivdly in my mind. If we could only help for a week, we decided to put our all into it–but we still couldn not imagine leaving a city behind with so much work left to complete.
Our first jobs with our organization, CityConexx, seemed useless: clean up the church; pass out flyers for the church; collect kids around the Projects for a basketball camp. But the faces of those run-down children as they climbed off the bus at the church lit up the room. Suddenly, these children were not poor or from broken homes: they were normal. Some merely watched, in awe of such a carefree environment. Others played with more exhilaration and passion than any professional, desperate to soak up every moment before returning to a dark reality.
The real work began only as the week began to wane. We paraded into the streets of downtown Denver, eager to witness despite the danger of the city. Boxes weighed us down, filled with meals for the homeless on which we spent our own time and money making. The faces we met on those streets haunt me with sorrow: Angel, the divorced and jobless man desperate to see his children again; “Colfaxx”–“With two X’s,” he insisted–, who had lived on Colfax Street for 13 years and couldn’t afford his mental medication; each person became so human and so real as prayed to God to release them from their pain, crying and kneeling beside them, unable to offer substantial comfort. Each miserable story further awakened us to the level of desperation in the city and, undoubtedly, in cities all over the world.
Any fun we experienced on the trip–rafting on the Arkansas River with “Noah’s Ark”, shopping at the 16th Street Mall, or singing worship from the top of the Rocky Mountains–falls flat in comparison to the lives we touched and the lessons we learned. What we had imagined as a worthless, boring trip turned out to be a trip which transformed our lives forever, leaving us with new handprints on our hearts, and new missions on our minds. But most importantly, the trip renewed an overflowing gratitude for the precious, blessed lives we lead. The faces of Angel, Colfaxx, and the others whose lives we briefly touched represent a world of hunger and poverty.
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