SIDNEY — For thousands of years, adults have hoped that their children, the younger generation, will be able to change the world for the better.
The four students who comprise the senior class at Christian Academy Schools in Sidney took some small steps recently in a direction that may equip them to do that. They completed a senior mission trip to St. Louis, Mo.
Like many mission trips, theirs put them to work laying tile and cleaning carpets in a church, March 10-16. It was organized by Trek-X, who provided housing and determined the work to be done.
Unlike many other mission trips, this one put the students in the middle of the largest neighborhood of Bosnians outside Bosnia. There are 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis. Most of them are refugees who escaped the genocide of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. They practice Islam.
The Christian Academy seniors took advantage of a rare opportunity to meet, dine and talk with some of these people whose lives have been so very different from their own.
“The first day, we spent about two hours learning the history and culture of the Bosnian people and about the Bosnian genocide,” said Alexandria Baughman, daughter of Kristina and Robert Baughman, of Piqua.
That genocide, during the 1995 war, is still very much in the minds of the St. Louis Bosnians, said Christian Academy’s mission and outreach coordinator and senior home room teacher, Sheryl Ditmer, who accompanied the students on the trip.
“The people who attacked (the Bosnians) were Christians,” she said.
“We were told that when we interacted with them, we needed to keep that in mind,” Baughman said.
The pastor of the Church at Affton, the Baptist church where the group stayed and worked, knew people in the Islamic community, so the Christian Academy students got to visit a nearby mosque and meet its imam. He told them about Islam.
“We learned the similarities and differences between what they believe and what we believe,” Ditmer noted.
In addition to the mosque visit, the students were invited to share dinner in the homes of two Syrian families.
“I learned how good foreign food is,” said Chuck Adkins, son of Deborah and Doug Adkins, of Sidney. The kids feasted on shawarma, kibbeh and Turkish coffee.
“And a crescent roll with Nutella in it. Mmmmmm. I ate three of them,” said Hanna Heaberlin, daughter of Stephannie and David Heaberlin, of Sidney.
It was through the conversations in those private homes that the group began to understand what being a refugee was like. Both families had lived in refugee camps before emigrating to the U.S.
“When we were in their homes and sharing their stories, they talked a lot about what it was like to be new,” Ditmer said.
The students kept some Bible verses in mind throughout their trip, one of which was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” They recognized that “neighbor” included the people they were meeting in St. Louis.
“I learned that perceptions of people groups can really distort how the people actually are,” said Blake Lochard, son of Angie and Brad Lochard, of Russia.
“And when all your neighbors are Bosnian and Syrian, you have to know them to love them,” added Baughman.
The students also stopped at Oasis International, an organization that helps refugees settle in St. Louis, providing them with furniture, clothing, personal items, education and friendship. Two of the Christian Academy teens helped a teacher give English lessons and the other two assisted with baby care in the nursery while they were there.
At the church, they assisted a mission group of college students, laying floor tile, painting walls and ceilings and cleaning carpets. They had devotions every day.
“One of the reasons we take them on a senior trip is that, progressively in their time here, we’ve taken them places to volunteer. They’ve served here locally. The idea is to be farther away and be gone for a whole week,” Ditmer said. Among their challenges was doing without cell phones and tablets during that week.
“That was hard,” Heaberlin said. But she conquered an even bigger challenge.
“I’m a quiet person. When we went to (the Syrian) house, I was nervous. I don’t know how to talk to people. It pushed me. But I really enjoyed it,” she said.
Baughman was afraid she would upset someone without meaning to.
“I don’t have an issue with talking with people, more of an issue with getting in the way or offending accidentally,” she said.
For Adkins, the challenge was to get past stereotypes he admitted to having about Muslims because of Sept. 11.
“I’m still a little cautious. These people were awesome. It helped me get past that a little bit,” he said.
All four students said they would go again were they given the chance.
“Going on a trip like this, we hope it brings everything together for these students that they’ve been learning while they’re at the school,” said Head of School Dick Dray.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.