For Carissa Buurstra, it was the adventure of a lifetime. For her father, pastor Todd Buurstra, it was a chance to do mission while expanding the horizons of young people in his congregation.

For Carissa Buurstra, it was “the adventure of a lifetime!”

For her father, pastor Todd Buurstra of North Branch Reformed Church in Bridgewater, New Jersey, it was a chance to do mission while expanding the horizons of young people in his congregation.

“It” was a mission trip to Belize in the summer of 2016. And for the 12 North Branch members who took part, it was also their first chance to see, in person, the realities of life in a developing nation.

The experience left a lasting impression.

“Our church had never been on an international mission trip before,” says Carissa, a graduate student at Merrimack College. “I had just graduated from [the University of Connecticut] and wanted to do something extraordinary to celebrate and start my life. I had no idea what I was getting into.”

North Branch members “don’t see a lot of lack,” says Todd. The church is located in Somerset County, one of the ten wealthiest counties in the United States. And while the congregation has a strong service focus, their work has tended to focus on serving various needs within surrounding communities. Such work has always been transformative, but Todd was seeking a new opportunity for the college-age members of North Branch.

He found it in partnership with a neighboring congregation, Bridgewater United Methodist Church. Bridgewater already had a relationship with the Methodist Church in Belize and gladly welcomed North Branch members aboard for their next ten-day trip.

“I didn’t realize how undeveloped Belize was and how many people were struggling,” says Carissa. “As soon as we left the airport, we were greeted by dirt streets, excruciating heat, and houses made of sticks and stone.”

Working just outside the capital city of Belmopan, the New Jersey group spent their days working on a construction project at the local high school and on painting and teaching projects at St. Jude’s Elementary School. Carissa split her time between painting the exterior of St. Jude’s and working with students. At the school, she was immediately inspired by the first-grade teacher, in whom she saw God’s love.

“Some of these kids had stayed back for a couple years in her class, yet every day she would work with them and she never gave up,” says Carissa. “God was working through her to give these children hope and instill confidence in them at such a young age. [She taught them] that they could go on and finish school and do whatever they wanted to do.”

Beyond the work at the school, Carissa found her faith being stretched in other ways, too. By traveling with people from Bridgewater United Methodist and students from North Branch who she didn’t know as well, she was challenged to open up more about God and her own personal struggles.

“I established deep connections with some people that I never thought I would talk to,” she says. “Every night, me and three other girls would talk about a different ‘hot topic’ in religion. It opened my eyes to different perspectives.”

Carissa spends five minutes before she goes to bed each night thanking God for the good in her life. Since she returned from Belize, those prayers have changed somewhat.

“Too often I forget how blessed I am, and ever since I spent time in Belize, I want to try and be just like those children,” she says. “God was giving them the strength and courage to continue in their … unstable world. I want to be a light in other people’s lives like those children were to me. I know I impacted their lives, but I hope they also know how much they impacted my life.”


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