Mission of Peace Life-Changing for WPA Youth


Two young women from Western PA have returned home after spending nearly three weeks on a Mission of Peace to South Africa. Kayla Schwanke of Russell UMC in Kane District and Kirsten Miller of Grace UMC in Coal Center, Washington District, were among a group of 18 youth and adult advisers, including Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson, on the annual journey of discovery sponsored by the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s Council on Youth Ministries. 

The group worshiped and enjoyed fellowship with South African youth and adults in and around Johannesburg and Capetown. They learned about the country's complex history, politics and mixture of faiths and cultures, as well as its challenges and hope for the future.

"I can honestly say that going on this trip has changed my life," said Kirsten. "I know most people say that when they go on similar trips, but this was different than other mission trips I have been on. The Mission of Peace trip is different. You see and experience things that most people can't even imagine," she explained. 

Kirsten, Matt Ditchen of West Virginia and Kayla

“What impressed me the most about the experience is how the people treated us and how they can live with so little, but have so much love and care about everyone around them,” said Kayla, 17, a junior at Eisenhower Middle/Senior High School who has represented the Kane District as a youth delegate to annual conference the past two years.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how much (the Mission of Peace) changed my life,” she added. “I have a new outlook on life. God has blessed me with food on the table every day and a warm house in the winter to come home to.  But the biggest impact I think it had on me personally is that (I realized) no matter where they live or what they live or where they worship, the people still thank God for everything they have and they love him with all their heart.”

The people were so welcoming, she said. “They didn't care that we were Americans…they treated us like we were a part of their family.”
It is so different from the way we as Americans treat others and how we look at things in life, she explained. “We take things for granted as Americans, I feel.” 

Kirsten said the most surprising thing for her was how happy the people they met seemed to be. "We were always greeted with smiles and hugs whenever we went somewhere. People were just happy to see someone cared enough to talk to them," Kirsten explained. 

During the trip, the youth visited the Apartheid Museum; urban Soweto, where the struggle against Apartheid began; the Mosaic program in Ikageng, which provides mothers raising children orphaned by AIDS with housing and skills to help support their adopted families; Kliptown, an impoverished, crowded area of Soweto; a residential AA ministry to talk with the men who live there; and the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town to learn about political concerns and diplomatic relationships between the two countries.

They also witnessed wonders of God's creation at a lion park, Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope.

Kayla said she and Kristen enjoyed being with great group of youth that they could relate to and talk with. “The bus rides we had jamming out to music and singing along as a group was a lot of fun.  Worshiping together as a group and with youth and young adult from the churches were also highlights for the Western PA representatives. 
"It is still hard for me to come back and talk about the trip and the things I have experienced, but knowing that I have a group of people who have gone through the same things is always helpful," Kirsten said three weeks after returning.

Kayla said she thinks talking about the experience is hard “because we saw things that most Americans will never see in a lifetime and knowing that I don't have to worry about anything when I'm home is hard for me to process. Also knowing that there are families that may not know where their next meal is coming from is hard.”

Thomas Schmidt, one of the adults who accompanied the group, posted updates on the Mission of Peace Facebook page. On the last night, he said this:

“It has been a great and blessed two and a half weeks here in SA with this wonderful group of MOP'ers.We've seen the beauty of the people and the land, but also the hell that was caused by apartheid and other atrocities. Throughout this journey these young people saw the face of God everywhere. It was evident in their thoughts as they shared them this afternoon that these youth will make a difference in the world.

Kirsten put it this way: "With everything I have witnessed I thank God everyday for giving me the life I have. I might not always be happy with how things are going but then I think about the little kids who were happy with just being able to see their pictures and have us play with them. Some days I wake up and think I'm still there, then reality sinks in and I spend my whole day thinking about the amazing people I have met, not only from South Africa but also the ones here in our Jurisdiction."

To learn more, read reflections and see photos of this life-changing journey, visit the NEJ Mission of Peace Facebook page.

The 2015 Mission of Peace group will travel to India. Each annual conference in the Northeastern Jurisdiction may select up to four participants, who are responsible for raising funds for the trip. For details and an application, visit nejmop.com.