The Cary Church of God Mission Team members are a bit like modern day Supermen.
Some of the volunteers work in the Cary area as teachers, office managers and nurses.
But when the mission call to Ecuador comes, the group is transformed into superheroes, delivering needed medical care, glasses and spiritual revival to a part of South America that is described as “desperately poor.”
From July 19 to 26, a missionary team of 88 people from 16 churches, primarily from the East Coast, left for Guayaquil Ecuador. The city on the western bank of the Guayas River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean, has the hustle and bustle feel of New York City with taxis whizzing in and out of traffic at breakneck speed.
But the transition from the largest city in Ecuador to the sites for the mission work, which all have extreme poverty, is heartbreaking.
About half of the group on the trip came from the Cary Church of God. After more than 20 years of mission work in Ecuador, this was the last trip for the group. By now, the volunteers and the Ecuadorians treated each other like family. But the group decided that another part of the world needed their help.
I wasn’t called in the typical way for this mission trip. I didn’t think I had any skills to offer. I don’t speak Spanish, the primary language spoken in Ecuador. I’m not qualified to be on a medical team. I am not physically able to help a construction team. I don’t feel led to serve on a church planting team.
The opportunity for me to join the trip – my first mission trip ever – came on July 5, just weeks before the group left.
I wanted to find a reason to say, “No, I can’t go to Ecuador,” but when I learned that Janet Baggett, the evangelism pastor for the church, was praying for a photographer, I cleared my calendar, packed my bags and started studying Spanish.
The six days in Ecuador left me feeling poured out emotionally, physically and spiritually. Each day we rose early and worked hard. One night, I was so exhausted, I fell into bed without taking a shower or changing into pajamas.
But the memories of the dear people who live in such humble surroundings, and yet were open to sharing so much of themselves, will be etched forever in my mind.
The mission leader
Baggett’s first trip with the church to Ecuador was in 1997. Over the years, Baggett has served on every team except construction.
This year, Baggett coordinated all aspects of the trip. Every detail, including arranging for the teams’ daily transportation to their work sites to making peanut butter sandwiches for the missionary lunches, fell under Baggett’s watchful eye. Almost every aspect of the mission required implementing logistics to create order in an area that has none.
When Baggett wasn’t at work helping the missionaries, she was on the streets of Duran going door to door with the church planting team.
With a translator’s help, the team asked the residents if they needed medical or spiritual care. If they wanted to attend a church, they were told of the Sunday church services and the daily discipleship classes.
If medical care was needed, information was provided about the mission team’s clinic.
Baggett, 68, was as comfortable ministering one on one with Ecuadorians as she was on stage leading a group in prayer.
“We will never be put on a shelf if we don’t want to be,” said Baggett, who lives in Cary with her daughter and grandson.
I joined Baggett’s team for a day and discovered the streets of Duran were dirt. The floors in the homes were dirt. Within a few minutes, I was covered in dirt.
Once I met a few Ecuadorians, it didn’t matter. The people were so kind, beckoning us to come into their homes to pray with them.
We visited one home where two women were very proud of their small business. They invited us in to see the paper statues they had made for a New Year’s celebration. When Baggett laid her hand on one of the women’s faces to pray, it was as if the love of God flowed through the team to deliver hope and healing.
The medical team
A school in Duran was transformed into a medical facility. It was incredible to watch as volunteers from the United States, who had left their jobs as office managers, teachers, doctors and pastors, formed a medical team equipped to help Ecuadorians with dental, medical, optical and pharmacy needs.
The school was like nothing I have ever seen. The front door was more of a metal garage door that swung open to the main area of the school.
The medical team set up tents in the dirt courtyard. Stacks of colorful plastic chairs were put into five rows to create a waiting room in front of the tents. Tables were transformed into small intake centers, where the team took blood pressure, temperatures and asked about basic medical needs.
Marge Smith, 70, was the leader of this group known as the Red Medical Team. The Purple Medical Team was assigned to another area near Guayaquil.
This was Smith’s 15th trip to Ecuador. Although Smith lives in Cary now, she spent much of her childhood in Honduras. Her parents were missionaries who instilled in her the importance of helping others.
“My hands are open and I say, ‘Lord, send me,’” said Smith, who was joined on the trip by her brother, John, a member of the Purple Medical Team.
The medical team’s biggest challenge is creating a system to treat the hundreds of Ecuadorians who flock to the clinics each day. Smith helped develop a system using colored wrist bands. Patients with a red band are seen by the doctors. Blue bands are given to those who need a dentist. Silver bands are for eye patients.
The eye center was created in a small classroom that had bars on the windows. The team quickly unpacked the reading glasses, prescription glasses and sunglasses. Vision was verified with an eye chart taped to wall in the back of the room. Glasses were distributed in the front of the room.
Eric Reynolds has come on the trip for three years and volunteers in the eyeglass center. One of the most common eye problems is Pterygium, a lesion that forms on an eye due to gritty conditions. The grit, somewhat like a grain of sand in an oyster, grows and can cause blindness.
“Because the sun is damaging to the eyes, everyone gets a pair of sunglasses,” said Reynolds, 46, and a member of Cary Church of God.
Reynolds describes the work in the eyeglass clinic as emotional.
“One man started crying when he put on glasses for the first time and could see,” Reynolds said. “That one moment takes your breath away.”
Reynolds was on the trip with his wife, Misty, who worked in the prescription center, and his daughter, Summer, who was a part of the Community Youth Team that went into several schools to lead music and drama lessons.
At the end of the day, doctors treated 250 Ecuadorians. Most were given medicine through the prescription center set up at the exit door. The dental team treated 120 patients. The eye center helped 120 people.
2,500 How many received medical support
1,200 Sunglasses distributed
120 How many received dental support
The construction team
The construction team builds a church in a different area of Ecuador. This year’s plan called for a two-story building across the street from the police station in Duran.
The first step was to tear down the shack that was on the property.
Everything takes extreme effort. Mixing concrete with shovels and lifting support beams for the roof requires many hands. The team leader kept the group going with songs and jokes.
The Cary pastor
A crusade was held the last two evenings of the trip.
Pastor Patrick Jensen, 36, led the final session on the street, with plastic chairs creating pews and the twinkling stars in the sky forming the sanctuary ceiling.
If I felt poured out at week’s end as a photojournalist, I can’t imagine how Jensen felt after working hard every day. Jensen, who is both a Pentecostal preacher and a psychiatrist, treated patients with the medical team the first two days of the trip.
“It’s amazing to be brought to a church that integrates ministry and medicine,” said Jensen, who lives in Cary with his wife and five children.
The third day, Jensen worked on the construction team. The fourth day, he was with a church planting team. Friday, Jensen spent time with the youth presenting dramas in the schools.
He preached Saturday morning and evening. Sunday was our travel day, and by Monday, Jensen was back at work in Roxboro with the Person County Family Medical and Dental Center.
Pastor Richard Dial began the Cary Church of God effort in Ecuador more than 20 years ago. The vision was to bring a small group to Ecuador for a couple of years.
The effort has grown. A few years ago, the team was made up of more than 300 people, primarily Church of God members who live in North Carolina. Many team members come every year from states as far away as New York and Florida.
“We are the body of Christ acting as one,” Smith said.
Because this was the last trip for the Cary Church of God, an appreciation banquet was held midweek at the Grand Hotel Guayaquil. Pastors from the churches that had been built from the mission effort joined the Ecuador Church of God officials to present a plaque.
Pastor Angel Mendoza, retired overseer for the Ecuador Church of God, praised the efforts of the mission and presented a plaque.
“Thousands and thousands have been touched and blessed by this church,” said Mendoza. “More than 20 houses of prayer have been built.”
With the Ecuador trips concluded, it’s time for the church to turn its attention to finding a new place for its next mission trip. They don’t know where they’ll go, just that a trip will happen.
Fundraising begins later this month.
“We are praying for a Macedonian vision as we begin a new chapter that requires us to be open and flexible,” Jensen said.
Want to help?
An NFL Football Clinic and Auction fundraiser is Saturday, Aug. 22, from 9 a.m. to noon at the Cary Church of God, 107 Quade Drive, Cary. The football clinic is free and open to boys and girls ages 8 to 18. The clinic will be run by members of the New York Giants, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. After the clinic, an auction of NFL memorabilia will be held to raise money for future mission trips. To learn more, call Daniel Bunce at 919-467-0537 or go to www.carycog.com.