Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 23, 2016

On the Front Lines

The world is in turmoil, the nations are in an uproar, and many people find themselves in very deep trouble. Over the past several years I have ventured to the front lines of human suffering. In recent years, I have visited hundreds of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Regardless of the circumstances or events that drove them from their respective homes, all of these refugees share several things in common.

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They have suffered the worst.

The one common denominator among the refugee families that I have visited over the years is that they have suffered the worst. Regardless of whether they are Muslim or Christian background, every single family experienced loss on a scale that is hard to comprehend. Their stories are profiles in pain — evidence of the cruelty bestowed on them by other human beings.

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They are struggling to make sense of it all.

Suffering causes all people to reflect deeply about the why of it all. Some refugee families suffered because the battle came to them — to their neighborhood. Others suffered because they were Muslim, the wrong kind of Muslim, or a Christian infidel deserving of death. It isn’t difficult for those who place people in categories to justify their acts of cruelty toward those in the wrong category. Someone always suffers at the hands of those who do not regard human life as sacred.

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They want the best for their families.

Without question, every refugee family I have visited over the years wants the best. They know that life will never be what it was before and that they will never recover what they lost. They all long for a new start — one that will enable them to provide for their families. They wonder if they will be able to find work so that they can put food on their table. And, they are concerned about the welfare of their children and about things like education and medical care.

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They need help in order to start over.

The challenges of being a refugee in a host country are beyond difficult. None of the families I have visited ever expected that they would leave their ancestral homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Imagine yourself in that situation, without access to the people and places and possessions that define your life and make it meaningful for you. Starting over is hard. Refugee families want and need a hand up — an article of clothing, a sleeping mat, shoes for their kids, access to medical care, and the hope of a place to call home.

Rohingya Kids at Tent
Ultimately, they want and need hope.

The writer of Proverbs put it best, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12). Hope is as vital to our survival as the air we breathe. Without it, we wither away. For those refugee families that find themselves caught in the teeth of a storm, any shred of hope becomes something to cling to, something to keep them afloat a little longer. Hope in the form of humanitarian aid, a visit from someone who cares, a word of encouragement, an unexpected act of kindness — these matter to families in pain.

Our world is indeed in turmoil. As Christ-followers we must be present on the front lines of human suffering. We must be the hands and feet of Jesus and show the world the distinctiveness of our biblical worldview — one that regards human life as sacred and cares about the least of these. We must continue to pray, give, and move in the direction of the suffering. And when we reach them, we must love without condition and serve compassionately without expecting anything in return.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 14, 2016

Our Cultural Excursion

One of the best ways to learn a new language is by immersion. Honestly, there are just some things that you simply can’t learn from reading a book or listening to a lecture. The advantages of being in a setting where you are exposed to the subtle nuances of a language are huge.

Wadi Rum Camel Man
The same holds true for expanding our cultural vocabulary. Cultural vocabulary is that practical wisdom concerning why a particular people do things the way they do and what we should know in order to more effectively communicate with them. After all, effective communication involves more than words.

Taking the time to learn about the things that have shaped the way other people see the world is important. When we spend time in their context, observing how they do things and why, we can begin to make progress toward the kind of understanding that can help us to build bridges of love.

Iraqi Refugees at Home
Over the past couple of weeks our students have been immersed in a culture that is far different from what they are accustomed to. They have removed their shoes when entering homes, they have sat on the floor in a way that does not expose the soles of their feet, they have sipped gallons of tea one tiny cup at a time, and much more.

One cultural distinctive that has impressed our students is Middle Eastern hospitality. Offering hospitality to strangers was a moral imperative and sacred duty in ancient times. That’s because people believed guests were sent to them from God. Abraham, for example, showed this attitude when he entertained three strangers who proved to be angels (Gen. 18).

Wadi Rum Teapot
Hospitality in the Middle East continues to this day. It is ingrained into the cultural DNA of the people here. Every Syrian and Iraqi refugee family we visited extended selfless hospitality to us. They offered us tea and whatever cookies or sweets they had in the home. They invited us to stay for a meal, even though they barely had enough to feed their own families. These are practices that date back to ancient times.

Petra Treasury KSM Students
We ended our time in Jordan by visiting Petra, the magnificent World Heritage Site. Our guide explained the roots of so many of the cultural practices that continue to this day, including extending hospitality to others. From Petra we drove to Wadi Rum to take a desert excursion and watch the sun set over distant hills. Along the way we stopped to enjoy tea with Bedouins who welcomed us with open arms.

Wadi Rum Students

In a few hours we will head for the airport to begin our journey back to the States. We do so knowing that our students have made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of refugees they have met and cared for. And, our students will return home having experienced the kindness of those who are often depicted in less than a positive light in the media.

Wadi Rum Tea

Hopefully, the cultural lessons our students have learned during their time in Jordan will inform their own interaction with the diaspora of nations in our own backyard. Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness — all foes to real understanding. Likewise, tolerance, or broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in our little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Traveling and interacting with people in other places not only helps those who travel, it can also help those they meet to abandon their own prejudices or misinformation about others. I am grateful to have spent the past couple of weeks leading our students to love and serve others in the name of Jesus. There is no question in my mind that every one of us are returning home from our cultural excursion with a better perspective on what it takes to build cultural bridges of love.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 12, 2016

The Signature of Suffering

Statistics can easily anesthetize us to the painful realities experienced by the individual people who make up those statistics. It’s one thing to hear that about the millions of refugees in search of a safer place to live, but it’s another thing to look one of those refugees in the eyes and listen to a personal story of loss and suffering.

While statistics touch our heads, individual stories touch our hearts. Charts and graphs can give us insight into the magnitude of a problem, but a personal story can compel us to become a part of the solution to that problem. Nothing can touch our hearts more than a story shared in the muted and halting cadence of emotion.

Every refugee family we visit in Jordan has a story of personal suffering. I can see in the faces of our students that they are thinking deeply about what they are hearing and seeing. In our evening debriefing time, several sit with tears in their eyes. It’s hard not to weep.

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Today I met a 29-year-old Muslim-background refugee named Hassan, a young man with once-handsome features. His hands and arms bore the distinctive signature of suffering. He invited us into his home where we sat on a single tattered sofa and on the floor. Hassan then took his place on the floor and began to speak.

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His story dates back to the month of March in 2011 when the civil conflict in Syria was ignited in Deraa. He was an officer in President Assad’s army. In the days following the initial spark, his heart turned toward the Arab Spring movement. Eventually he switched loyalties and began to fight with the opposition.

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One day he was caught on video raising the opposition banner. He was soon arrested and imprisoned. His former friends then tortured him mercilessly. The worst of it all was what they did to his hands. Instead of killing him, they decided that his hands would never again raise a flag of opposition.

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And so began a torture designed to maim his hands. They attached electrical cords to his arms and sent waves of electricity through them. And then, they took pliers and crushed his wrist bones. They repeated their torture until his hands no longer functioned. Hassan remained in prison until he was finally freed in a prisoner exchange agreement.

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Disillusioned, he did not know what to do. And then he had the first of four dreams — dreams in which a man in white appeared to him. In those dreams, this man repeatedly told him that He loved him and that He was the way, truth, and life. As a result, Hassan, wanted to know more.

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In time, he crossed paths with one of our partners in Jordan. They sat and talked for hours. Hassan finally understood that Jesus was that man in his dreams. Without being prompted, he told me that he bowed his head and prayed, “Jesus, I want you to be my Savior.” And then, everything changed. He talked about an unexplainable peace.

Today, Hassan’s body still bears the brutal signature of torture and suffering. But, he has the assurance that one day his broken body will be made whole by the One whose own body also bears the signature of suffering. He is passionately devoted to Jesus and now bears a smile and a faith that can never be broken.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 10, 2016

Reading Another Page

I love to encourage people to go beyond — to step across the line that defines the farthest they’ve ever been and the most they’ve ever done. New experiences and discoveries await those who venture to the other side of that line. In many cases, crossing that line requires that we overcome our fears about venturing to new places.

St. Augustine said, “The world is a book. He who does not travel reads only a single page.” I agree. Those who go beyond, however, read another page, broaden their cultural vocabulary, become better informed, see the world through new eyes, and grow in their understanding of the world views that shape the lives of others.

Students Worship in Amman 2016
This morning our students broadened their understanding of the world by worshiping at my favorite church in Amman. I had the privilege of sharing a message about what God expects of us when we come across those who are in deep trouble. Afterwards we enjoyed a time of fellowship with church members. This was a special experience for our students.

Students at Madaba 2016
After lunch we traveled to the city of Madaba in Moab, the ancient land of Ruth. Madaba is known as the City of Mosaics and is home to the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George. This beautiful church dates back to the 6th century and is home to the oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land — an impressive map on the floor of the church made up of more than 1.5 million mosaic tiles.

Students at Mount Nebo 2016
From Madaba we traveled the short distance to Mount Nebo, regarded as the most revered holy site in Jordan. This is the place where God permitted Moses to view the Holy Land. And, this is the mountain that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced in his famous sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — the final sermon he preached just ten hours before his assassination.

Students at Dead Sea 2016Our final stop of the day was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Our students ended the day by floating in the über-salty waters and slathering the famous Dead Sea mud all over their bodies. This mud is reputed to do wonders for the skin. Just being at the Dead Sea did wonders for our team. It has been an emotionally intense week and the fun and laughter at the Dead Sea recharged our batteries.

Jordan is indeed a country that is bulging at the seams with history — and all within easy driving distance. Our visits to some of the most famous sites in the country this afternoon gave our students some historical context to the region and the people who live here. Understanding where others live and what has shaped them is a key component in building cultural bridges of love.

Tomorrow we will continue our work of serving Syrian and Iraqi refugees. On Tuesday evening I will preach at the Iraqi refugee church that now numbers in the hundreds. Our students will lead Bible studies for the kids. And then on Wednesday we will head south to end our time in Jordan with a visit to Petra and Wadi Rum. Thanks for your prayers for our team.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 10, 2016

Working Together

The refugee crisis in the Middle East continues to prove challenging for host nations. To put the matter in a perspective we can relate to, imagine several other families moving into your home during a crisis — and then staying for an indefinite period of time. The presence of so many people in your home would certainly put a strain on your resources, not to mention your sanity.

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Managing the needs of so many people in need is a challenge for the host nations, for the United Nations, and for the many agencies lending their hands to the task. But, the size of the challenge requires that everyone work together. That is the only way anything will get done.

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On a smaller scale, our students have seen firsthand the value of working together to get a job done. Whether the task is distributing aid to families, sorting through two shipping containers of supplies, leading Bible clubs for kids, or doing manual labor at the House of Ruth, they have seen the value of working together to tackle big jobs.

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One of the things we are leaning is that those who are committed to a cause greater than themselves are willing to work cooperatively to get things done. Every day our service teams huddle to go over their assigned task for the day, to review their game plan, and to pray. By working cooperatively, they are getting the job done.

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Our students are also learning that they are not here to labor for personal reward or recognition. They want all of the glory to go to God. Every act of service done in His name helps those served to personally experience some measure of God’s love for them. And, it’s making a difference. Today, two Syrian refugees chose to place their faith in Jesus Christ.

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We had a long and fruitful day of service as we worked together to help meet the needs of refugee families in Jordan. The presence of our students has given many of these families hope, brought a smile to their weary faces, and assured them they are not forgotten. I am thankful for the selfless service of our students and sponsors. By working together we are making a difference.

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Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 8, 2016

A Huge Task Completed

A firestorm was ignited in Syria in March 2011 that continues to burn out of control. No one could have imagined that the arrest of fourteen school children who had expressed sympathy for Arab Spring protestors would spark what has become one of the biggest humanitarian crises on the planet.

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Since then, Syria has been embroiled in a civil conflict that has impacted the lives of millions of its people. Syrians fearing for their lives have fled to neighboring countries with little or nothing to make a new start. Jordan is one of those countries that has made provision for the welfare of refugees.

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The United Nations stepped in to help. But, that is not enough to meet the challenges of providing for the basic needs of so many desperate people. The task is indescribably huge. Relief agencies from around the world have also responded to the cries for help from those who got caught in the crossfire of a civil conflict gone mad. And that is what has brought us yet once again to Jordan.

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For the past several years, the people of Kingsland have had a presence in the lives of Syrian and now Iraqi families displaced from their homes by ISIS. Working with our friends at Global Hope Network International, we are lending our hands to the ongoing relief efforts. This week, a team of almost fifty Kingsland students and adults are working to care for refugee families.

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Today, our team took a break from delivering aid to refugee families to help replenish supplies for these families. Two forty-foot shipping containers arrived at Global Hope’s warehouse packed with items for the refugees. Our task was to go through the hundreds of boxes and packages and sort everything out for distribution in the coming weeks. This was one big task.

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Our students worked all day in the heat to sort, classify, and label hundreds of boxes. And they did it all with a cheerful heart. I loved watching our students embrace the challenge. They worked cooperatively in groups. They came up with their own ways to do the task. They divided the warehouse into zones for various types of supplies. And they got the job done.

Jordan 2016 Team in Warehouse
In the morning we walked into a warehouse jumbled with piles of supplies. By the end of the day you could see the floor and access every box. What we did today will make it easier for our friends at Global Hope and the teams that will continue to come here to distribute aid. And what we did here today reminded us all that the task of caring for people in need is huge but, if we work together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who are hurting. Today, the hands and feet of Jesus were present in a hot warehouse in Amman.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 7, 2016

Seeing the World Anew

Something happens when we move in the direction of people in need — our perspective changes. There is an insight that comes only from being onsite. It’s one thing to read or listen to news accounts of the refugee crisis in the Middle East but quite another to be in the same room as the people impacted by those realities. Looking into the eyes of refugees and listening to their personal stories sans any media filter does indeed deepen understanding.

Amman View
This week our student team is getting the education of a lifetime as we serve Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have fled to Jordan for safety. Regardless of whether the people we serve are Muslim or Christian background, they both feel pain and bleed the same way. As Christ-followers, we are here to serve those in need without condition and without expecting anything in return. To turn a Mother Teresa quote, we are here looking for Jesus in the distressing disguise of refugees.

Aid to Refugees
Our team is engaged on several fronts. First, we are delivering humanitarian aid to refugees who have recently arrived in Amman. This is, perhaps, the most emotionally intense component of our work here. Every family we visit has suffered unimaginable loss — of both loved ones, friends, and personal property. They are in the unenviable position of having to make a new start, some with nothing more than the meager stipend they receive from the United Nations.

Coffee with Refugees
It is important to us to not be in a hurry as we visit these families. We take the time to drink a cup of tea or strong coffee with them, to listen to their stories, and to weep and pray with them. One father summed it up best when we gave his family much needed groceries. “The real treasure,” he said, “is you and that you have come so far to care for us.” Our being onsite has given these families special insight into the unconditional love and care of Christ-followers.

Iraqi Refugee Kids
A part of our team is spending time with the children of Christian-background Iraqi Christians. Like their parents, these kids left their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs. Some have missed a year or more of their education because the schools in Jordan simply cannot absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugee kids in the country. Our time with these kids has resulted in lots of smiles and laughter and something that looks more like a normal childhood. It’s a little thing but it matters much to these families.

House of Ruth Rock Wall
Some of our students are also doing some practical labor at a vocational training center for refugees called the House of Ruth. Located in Moab, the homeland of the biblical character named Ruth, this center is restoring hope into the lives of many refugee women and children. The students that served there today added a section to a rock wall. This was, of course, the first time for any of our suburban students to do anything like this. Pardon the pun but they truly rocked!

Students in Amman
Our evening worship and debriefing time was pretty cool. Several of our students shared new insights they have gained into an issue that is on the front pages of the news every week. More importantly, they are gleaning a better understanding of the fact that these refugees are people just like them. They are afraid of ISIS. They don’t want to lose their lives in a civil conflict gone mad. They are tired of the violence, whether it is Muslim on Muslim violence or ISIS threatening Christians to permanently leave their ancestral homes in northern Iraq.

Serving at House of Ruth
The efforts of our students may amount to nothing more than adding a drop of water to a vast ocean. But, as Mother Teresa once said, the ocean would be less without that drop of water. Our students are making meaningful connections with people they never thought they would meet in a place they never imagined they would visit. As a result, they will never see the world and the people in it the same way again.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 7, 2016

When the World Hurts

The view of our planet from outer space is awe-inspiring — a reminder of what a small piece of real estate our human species actually occupies in the limitless expanse of the universe. All of the geographical boundaries and the other things that separate us from one another are indistinguishable from space. The only thing that is certain is that God has blessed us with a beautiful place to call home.

Earth from space
The state of our world only becomes apparent as we zoom in. Only then do we begin to see and sense that all is not well on our planet. Only then do we begin to hear creation groaning and longing for something better. And only then do we begin to more fully understand that apart from recognizing that human life is sacred, we will utterly destroy one another and the world we live in.

Jordan 2016 Team Bush Airport

Yesterday, our team of students arrived in Jordan in response to the cries of hurting humanity — refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria and the threat of ISIS in northern Iraq to find some measure of safety for themselves. What is happening in this part of the world should indeed concern us. To ignore what is happening or to walk away is paramount to the behavior of the priest and Levite who did the same in the parable of the good Samaritan.

The parable of the good Samaritan illustrates the various ways in which we regard our fellow human beings and, ultimately, why the world hurts. The attitude of the men who beat and robbed the traveler on the Jericho road was, “What is yours is mine. I’ll take it.” That is the attitude that breeds pain, loss, fear, and despair.

The attitude of the priest and the Levite who happened across the dying man was, “What is mine is mine. I’ll keep it.” And indeed they did. They did not lift a finger to help a fellow human being who was in deep pain. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that they did not stop to help because they were afraid and thought to themselves, “What will happen to me if I stop to help that man?”

The attitude of the Samaritan is the attitude that we must learn to adopt if we are to alleviate the suffering of others. This man displayed an attitude that said, “What is mine is yours. I’ll share it.” And so he did. Again, in Luther’s words, this man must have thought to himself, “What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?” He displayed what Luther called a dangerous unselfishness.

Jordan 2016 Team Amman Airport
One of the most important things that Christ-followers bring to a world that hurts is a dangerous unselfishness. By being present in places where people are hurting, by being the hands and feet of Jesus, we can and we are making a difference. I am thankful that we are cultivating a dangerous unselfishness in our students. This month more than four-hundred of our students from Kingsland will show the world practical expressions of God’s love. I look forward to how He will use our high school grads to be His hands and feet among suffering refugees in Jordan. Thanks for your prayers.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | June 28, 2016

Into La Mosquitia

La Mosquitia is one of those places whose name understandably piques curiosity. Although the area has more than its fair share of mosquitos, the region was not named after the pesky flying insect. La Mosquitia, or the Mosquito Coast, is named for the Miskito people who inhabit this rugged region that spans the eastern coastlines of Nicaragua and Honduras.

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Harrison Ford shed some light on this fascinating slice of geography in the movie entitled “The Mosquito Coast.” Ford played a character named Allie Fox, an inventor who felt that American civilization was unraveling so he moved his family to the rain forests of Central America to make a new start. Of course, things quickly unraveled for him in the Mosquito Coast.

Miskito Home and Boat
La Mosquitia is indeed a fascinating place. The scenic beauty here is among the most amazing that I have seen on any of my travels. And yet it remains one of the most impoverished places in Central America, inhabited by the marginalized Miskito people. The Miskito have learned the keys to surviving in this place that is as difficult as it is beautiful.

Miskito Canoe Front View
Over the past several months I have been praying about new fields of service for the people of Kingsland. Our missions work currently spans several time zones across Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. As I was praying, God providentially allowed my path to cross with Melissa Fortin, one of our members. Honduran by birth, Melissa happened to say a word about a family from Texas working with Miskito kids in La Mosquitia.

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A short time later I told my friend Selim Sabillon about my interest in La Mosquitia. Selim is also Honduran and was a pilot in the Honduran Air Force. “I know the area well,” he told me. As it turned out, Selim had flown missions all along La Mosquitia when he was in the military and later as a civilian pilot. He still has an extensive network of contacts in the area.

Selim in Boat
And so began my journey into La Mosquitia. Thankfully for me, Selim agreed to accompany me. After doing some further research and contacting the missionary family that Melissa had told me about, I arranged for us to visit La Mosquitia. We discovered that few teams venture into the remote areas where the Miskito people live, perhaps because it is logistically challenging to do so. To make matters even more challenging, the Miskito people speak their own language, requiring visitors to find a good Spanish speaking Moskito to aid in translation.

Approach Miskito Village
Although Moravian missionaries came to this area when doing so was even more difficult than it is today, there is still much work to be done here. I love what Alex and Laura Waits of Reach Out Honduras are doing to provide an education for Miskito kids. This family was living their dream on their ten-acre property in North Texas until God interrupted their lives. Alex recalls hearing God speak the words “I want more from you” — words that changed his life.

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The rest is history for the Waits family. They now live among the Miskito and are committed to providing Moskito children with a quality education. And because they know the area, they kindly agreed to facilitate our visit to the remote village of Tumhtumhtara. My hope is to establish a collaborative initiative to assist the Waits with their good work while reaching deeper into the region.

Selim -- Omar in La Ceiba
Selim and I had a great visit with the people of Tumhtumhtara. They were beyond kind and gracious to us. They did, in fact, summon all of the families of the area to come and meet us since so few people visit here. I look forward to returning to La Mosquitia to begin this new engagement with the Waits family and the people of Tumhtumhtara. And, I remain grateful to God for connecting the dots that led me to the people of La Mosquitia.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | June 20, 2016

Kids Investing In Kids

If there is one thing I want for kids to know it’s that they don’t have to wait until they are grown up to make a difference. God can use them today to make our world a better place.

Every year, the kids who attend Vacation Bible School at Kingsland raise thousands of dollars to help less fortunate kids in other parts of the world. Over the years, our kids have invested in initiatives to help kids facing tough stuff in really hard places — from the steppes of Mongolia to the sands of Egypt to the displacement camps of Ethiopia and many more places on the planet.

Investing in kids is a top priority of Kingsland’s missions ministry. We believe that a key component of connecting faith and home is helping our kids to understand the world they live in. We want for them to know God’s concern for the nations and for the diaspora of nations that call Houston home.

Go Beyond Kids Explorers Club Button
One way in which we help our kids to understand the purposes of God is by giving them age-appropriate resources that explain what He is doing around the world — and how He can use them to make a difference. Last year our missions ministry launched our Go Beyond Kids Explorers Club, a really cool resource for helping kids make discoveries about our world.

Go Beyond Kids Map
This year, we are challenging our kids to raise funds to build two operating clinics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To that end, we have put together an awesome Explorers Club package for each kid who attends VBS. Each package contains a map of the DRC, a souvenir made by kids in the region, a bookmark, a challenge from our pastor, Explorers Club stickers, interactive geography games, and something new!

Go Beyond Kids Club Book
This year, instead of our Just For Kids magazine, we have included a book entitled “Clinics for the Congo.” The book was the brainchild of Amy Granger, my assistant. She challenged me to go beyond what I have done in the past by writing a book to explain to kids what life is like for kids in the DRC who have little access to medical care. Talented Kingsland member Lesley Steinweg beautifully illustrated the book.

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We are excited to give each kid who attends our VBS this week their very own and really cool Explorers Club package. Our prayer is that as kids interact with the material God will interact with each little heart — helping our kids to believe that God can indeed use them today to make the world a better place for kids in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond.

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