On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.
I spent 10 days in Florida this summer, which probably doesn’t sound too unique- in fact, Orlando is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. But what if I told you about a town 18 miles from the Magical Mouse that has toxic drinking water, limited medical services, a high rate of teen pregnancies, and high illiteracy rates?
The town of Bithlo was the destination for this mission trip. A group from my church’s youth group served with United Global Development (UGO), a non-profit community development organization founded by Timothy McKinney. Our group helped run a children's camp full of games, Bible lessons, crafts, a reading room, and lunch for children in the community. We also painted buildings and classrooms that will be used by Orange County Academy, a private school on the UGO campus.
This project, called Transformation Village, is designed to bring hope to the people of Bithlo who are often forgotten by local and state officials since becoming unincorporated in the 1930s. Which means, for nearly 80 years Bithlo has not been under any local town-led municipality or representation to resolve the mess caused by many different issues such as a vacant dump that has been the cause of so much pollution and health problems. Last year Orange County, where Bithlo is located, finally paid to have water from many of the wells in Bithlo tested to ensure the residents have safe drinking water.
Mr. McKinney operates on the basis that everyone should be treated with dignity and love. With this mindset volunteers, staff, and participants delve into relationships and advocate for people in Bithlo to develop a sense of community, improved health care, basic needs, education, transportation, housing, and taking care of the environmental issues in the area. Until last year the only way to receive medical services was to call 9-1-1 and take an ambulance to see doctors in the hospital in Orlando about any issue- minor or major. Thanks to UGO, there is now a small clinic open five days a week to work with more minor health concerns in Bithlo. Another problem is transportation. Since there is no transportation system, virtually everyone walks or bikes. Many of the people I met told me that several residents have been hit by cars on the one main road through town because of this. This is an ongoing concern that UGO wants to work on improving for the people of Bithlo.
UGO takes seriously Jesus’ call to live an abundant life centered in the hope of the Gospel message that gives people purpose rather than just settling for “existing.” Adults and children in Bithlo are affected by a generational cycle of economic, relational, emotional, and spiritual poverty. The majority of children we spent time with at the Kid’s Camp lacked stable family lives, proper bathing and hygiene, and wanted to be hugged because other people in their lives wouldn’t do that for them. The trip was an incredibly impactful relational and spiritual experience for me.
By interacting with the people of Bithlo, I learned how to serve everyone I met with love, and saw a holistic Gospel lived out in serving people’s spiritual and material needs. The truth is that even if you don’t struggle with material poverty, we all have an area of poverty in our lives- relational, emotional, spiritual- where we need God’s grace, love, and hope in context of relationships with people who want to point us to a more purposeful life and secure identity in Christ.
Community development and justice ministry must give Christ and his Word centrality so we will not lose focus of our mission- bearing the ministry of reconciliation towards a holistic healing of communities around us. I love John 1:14 in the Message version because it says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” I challenge you to not just exist as a part of your neighborhood but to really “move in” just as Jesus did- making relationships, sacrificially serving others without making an effort to benefit from it, and pointing others towards God. (Above: United Global Development's main building in Bithlo.)
I have hope for Bithlo because God has put totally unqualified people in a situation that requires faith and total dependence on Him for everything on a daily basis. As more volunteers and mission teams partner to encourage the town and local churches, small steps will create sustainable change, futures will be changed, and people will know that God truly has His hand on all the work done because of the sacrifice and community modeled by the leadership.
-Andrew Kruse is currently working on church and school partnerships while studying Pastoral Studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, OR. He is actively involved as a leader in The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins, and Central Bible Church student ministries.