Hey everybody, after this week and watching God work in ways I never knew possible, not only in my own life but the lives of all of our students and leaders. It’s definitely been the biggest challenge of my short writing career but the GREATEST challenge God has ever placed in front of me. Words can only do so much justice to what all God is doing here in Lakeland, Florida this week but I’m going to give it all I got with the hope that the things you hear of God doing here and the lessons learned will be more than just words to you, but life- changing pieces of what God can do and how good God is that will reach beyond just the people on this trip. I pray that this will reach your hearts in a very special way as well. As much as I’ve called this the Dream Center “mission trip,” after the experiences with God this week and today, it’s more than just a mission trip. It’s been a LIFE-CHANGING trip in more ways than I could begin to describe.
I’m going to label out each section of the day just so my ADD doesn’t kick in and I miss out on sharing some of the awesome stuff God is doing. So, here we go!!!
Our devotion time today looked a little different than usual as we had a very special guest come in to speak to us and share his story of what God has done in his life, as well as lessons for all of us to learn from. Roger is his name, and cleaning is his game! Roger, is a man that’s been working as a handy man and janitor for the Dream Center for many years now and hearing how he got to working in this area of the Dream Center ministry is such a testament to the mighty and awesome God we serve. Roger began by painting a picture for us all, opening the window blinds to show us exactly how this community around the Dream Center hasn’t always looked like it does now. He told us about how before the Dream Center ever came to be, Lakeland, Florida was one of the roughest places in the nation, quite possibly the world. The streets here were filled with so much evil it’s crazy. Where the Dream center sits now is right beside where a prostitution and bootleg house used to be for years and years. Lakeland was a place that had daily incidents occur of shootings, stabbings, and people being killed. And that’s not here and there, every once in awhile but EVERYWHERE and DAILY!! Drugs and alcohol covered the streets and completely ruined lives in the worst ways, where the Dream Center sits now, it used to be clubs and different forms of evil going on. I want to also paint this picture for you to simply display where the Dream Center was at the beginning, the community God called them to minister to so you can better see just how much God has done since those times to bring the Dream Center and community of Lakeland to where it is now.
Man!!! Roger’s testimony was POWERFUL!!! He was living a life filled with smoking crack and drinking constantly. He felt he had nothing better he could be doing and after the first hit of crack, his life took a turn for the worse rapidly. He had came to the Dream Center a lot before to get food being handed out but that was it. Until, one day he hear Pastor Mike, the leader of the Dream Center day something that sparked something in his heart, words of truth that would change his life forever. Hearing Pastor Mike say, “no matter who you are or what you’ve done, God loves you exactly where you are despite it all.” These words hit Roger deeply as he realized for the first time how great Gods love really was. From that moment he gave his life to Christ, and prayed a prayer that would set up how the rest of his life would look. He said, “after I saw how God cleaned up the mess of my life, I told God if He wanted me to clean this building the rest of my life, I’ll do it God.” It’s funny how God answers prayers of surrender such as this. A job opened up for Roger to become the Dream Centers “handy man/ janitor.” And every day since, Randy has worked to not only clean up this building but play a role in cleaning up these streets.
Hearing Roger’s testimony was so powerful but after hearing it in that context, we were all pretty shook. This place we’re serving at, the Dream Center has truly played a transformative role in this community and it’s so cool how Pastor Mike has just continued planting seed after seed. Never knowing which one will grow but continuing to plant in patience and watching God changing lives in this community and the community one seed at a time. These moments were huge for us because now we could all see the Dream Centers overall purpose and mission even bigger, I mean we just heard from one of the seeds that grew through this mission. Hearing it specifically that morning as we were getting ready to begin our day by serving, hearing just how powerful God has worked at the Dream Center, it fueled our hearts to attack the day ahead. To follow under God’s control instead of our own and see the importance of of each seed planted in community and continuing to move faithfully to keep planting no matter what.
And of course after these huge lessons God set up an opportunity to share this fire He had placed in our hearts for His glory. We went out in the community to do more canvassing by giving out flyers for the kid’s club event coming up Saturday at the Dream Center where they will be giving out school supplies, having bouncy houses and just a lot of fun. It was LIT!!!
The students practically ran out of the Dream Center ready to serve. We watched as they took ownership of the mission, attacking streets with enthusiasm unknown to mankind!! It was so awesome to watch them get after it! Our objective was to take flyers to kids houses that we had been given addresses for but what ended up happening was BIGGER than that! Kids weren’t just staying by the guidelines but they were following the Holy Spirit’s guidance and were obedient to go above and beyond to get as many kids as possible into the Lords presence on Saturday as we have the Back-to-School bash!!! They went outside of addresses we were given and literally invited everybody! I’m talking about any house with kids toys or bicycles, asking people in community where kids live, being on the lookout for kids at all times and embracing each stranger on the street. It was amazing to see all the seeds planted in the effort to spread the word about Saturday’s event and even more amazing to watch as students were obedient to where God was guiding them, even going to houses with no sign of kids anywhere and then out of nowhere doors opening to houses with tons of kids, people with grandkids, and people who knew kids that would they would invite. And on top of all that, students didn’t hold up at just giving out the flyer and telling people about the event, they were persistent to ask people they came in contact with, “how can I pray for you today?” Then laying hands on those people and lifting them up by calling out to God. People who spoke of how much they seriously needed prayer, were able to get the prayer they needed because of the students stepping out to be faithful in obedience. Some students also were rejected when asking to pray for others, some rejected multiple times but this did NOTHING to stop them from continuing to attack this mission God has placed them on!!! Geez, it’s awesome, crazy and just wild how God has been working in the lives of these students this week.
Teamwork and surrender were two lessons being displayed big time by the students, and a level of sacrifice that was inspiring to see. Through the really hot Florida heat and being exhausted from walking house to house, they continued to push through for what God had called them to do. And as they pushed, God continued to open up doors to serve and love on people who were in desperate need of it.
Every year Pastor Matt and his wife Sarah spend time to take the students on a look at how everything got started for the two of them. Both were attending college at Southeastern university, which is a small Christian school in Lakeland, Florida and just so happened to run into each other and meet. Matt had spent a lot of his free time while here at Southeastern serving at the Dream Center as a volunteer and it just so happened after an invite to come and serve, Sarah began volunteering as well. The two served alongside each other as friends for a year or so and then as the stars aligned, they eventually became more than friends!!! It was an awesome experience to see where it all started for these two great leaders. I would love to give you more of their love story but I don’t want to mess up any of the awesome things God has done between the two of them. It was cool to see how what God is doing now and how this started there on the campus of Southeastern.
We got to go on a tour of the campus and see all the school had to offer which was actually a lot of really unique things. We got to see each part of the university as Matt and Sarah had the chance to catch up with old friends, the students had their eyes opened to see what the next step of their lives looked like. As middle and high school students this was a great opportunity for them to begin seeing what “college” looked like and thinking about what it takes to get there along with what God is calling them to do when they’re there. One student in particular was sharing how he was very interested in Southeastern’s “missions” department. After all the things God was doing in his heart on this trip, he wanted to know if missions could be a major at school and it just so happens that Southeastern has a program designed specifically for that called “intercultural studies.” Really really cool to see how God has been planting seeds of callings in the students hearts this week and hearing the questions they have about the next steps of their lives.
Upon returning back to the Dream Center after the tour, and the students having that “fun” time their enjoying seeing what college life looked life. It was really encouraging to see how quickly they were willing to jump back in and serve more at the Dream Center. Steve, the man in charge at the moment right now while Pastor Mike is away, had plenty for the team to do and as he told us what needed to be done, the team immediately embraced the chance to serve. There was one more neighborhood that needed to have flyers passed up for the kids club event on Saturday except this wasn’t just any neighborhood. It happened to be one of the roughest neighborhoods in town and although it carried a lot of non-appealing qualities to it, these kids there still needed to be served. Thankfully God held back the rain just long enough and with a lot of the men going for specific reasons, we attacked serving and loving on that neighborhood together. It was wild because after seeing the conditions of each house and apartment, it was obvious how much need was there. What was even wilder is despite hearing and seeing some fears from the students about walking into this somewhat dangerous territory, they continued to push past their fears, laying down themselves to attack this mission God had called them to. Just another big time example for students and the leaders that it doesn’t matter who the people are or what they are going through, even the “least of these” need to be served with the love of Christ. Honestly even more so when you see it through how Jesus laid an example of this in his earthly ministry. Huge lesson and huge step out of our comfort zones with the result being Gods love and goodness shown, His light brought into a very dark place.
Community Store/ Hot Dogs
After getting back from canvassing, a lot of the other students were already serving at the community store where they were helping the Dream Center staff give out bags of free food to people that live in the community who are in great need of this provision. Also, during this time we set up a table to give out free hot dogs, chips and drinks to those who came by. What looked like it would be just another time of serving by action quickly turned into much more than that. Myself and another leader Travis had the chance to spend a lot time talking to a gentlemen who was sharing his heart with us along with his love for God. Getting to listen to this man, share our hearts and all praise how good the God we serve is, it was moments we’ve never felt the Holy Spirit working so powerfully. We had the chance to pray for this man, while he also prayed for us and most of all encourage him to continue growing and walking in obedience to God. To be a pillar in this community for the gospel of Jesus Christ. About that time, we looked around and instead of seeing students standing around or playing, each student was taking ownership of each opportunity that walked up to be served. Students were stepping out of their comfort zones completely to do more than just hand out food to people in need but offer them the food that fills us up even greater than physical food. The Bread of Life, which is Jesus Christ. It’s safe to say that people were getting FED!!!! Students were seeking out each opportunity to talk to people, listen to their stories and get to know them. Then after building relationships with them asking to pray for them and sharing the Gospel with them through their testimonies. It was truly amazing watching God work through these students lives as every time we turned around we were faced with a view of a student laying hands on someone praying over them or sharing the truth of the Gospel. It has been evident from the first day here, as each day passes how these students, like every single one of them continues to be more and more transformed by the loves of Jesus in their lives. Each day we have gotten to watch students take new steps into the life and mission God has called them to. Watching the students embracing people in such a powerful way at the community store, I want to say I’m surprised but honestly at this point in the week after watching the way God has worked, I am getting used to being surprised by the way God is seriously changing and transforming these young lives. I just remember running back and forth to Pastor Matt, with more exciting news of student reaching out with Gods love to another person. I’ve never been so overwhelmed and truly inspired in my 24 years of living on this earth. I’ve never had so many cold chills and goosebumps as I’ve had this week, and not from me but the chance to watch how the Holy Spirit is capturing each student in this glorious mission and above all just how stinkin good God is.I got to throw in here that before dinner we had a run in with what I see as one of Satan’s beasts. As we were pulling out the grill to cook up our dinner, a decently sized rat was underneath the grill cover looking right at us. As we all stepped back the rat just took off as fast he could to get away from us. After a short chase the rat got away and I think some of us are still trying to get our hearts to come back up after having them drop so low. Well, maybe that’s just me because I have a major fear of rats so thank God we made it out alive.
I want to mention too during this time, we had the chance to minister to one of our students on something he had been struggling with. God opened up a door to tell him of the complete Freedom that he had through Jesus Christ. As many students struggle so much with shame and guilt from their sin and not being mature enough in their faith to not know they don’t have to sit in it but they are free from all condemnation. We got to share this verse with one of our students as a couple of more came into the area and we all got to pray over this situation together.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
Watching God come through this time where a student felt a situation that was impossible and unbreakable then seeing through God’s eyes, in His magnificent power, and see how God not just can break those chains but through the pain of surrender and tears, that God WILL break the chains off of whatever keeps you in bondage. Powerful moments this week of more than just students serving but learning more about their relationship with God and opening up about their struggles and pain to deal with them through God, and alongside others.
After such a long day of service, we decided the kids earned a trip to Lakeland’s pride and joy when it came to ice cream. We each got our favorite treats and enjoyed every bite of the creamy, sugary goodness provided by the people at the Twisty treat!
Then we decided instead of our regular worship and reflection at the Dream Center we would take that time to the streets and expand our worship by praising God in mission. We went down by a lake in Lakeland’s downtown area where it was crisp and cool, beautiful night. We all found some steps to sit on as Matt Howard, our awesome worship leader began playing some worship songs. And then we went into a time of worship, praying and praising God for who He is in our lives. There were a few people around that we hoped would want to join in with us but they quickly decided to call it a night and leave. Even though that was discouraging, it didn’t stop what God was doing in the lives of these students. We’ve all been learning all week what true freedom in worship is, for some that’s lifting their hands in surrender to God, for others it’s getting on our knees in prayer, and then some may feel the need to be still and take in each moment with Gods presence. A great lesson from Sarah as spending time in church for so many years, you can see a lot of people worshiping a lot for show more than actually worshiping from a pure heart with God praising motives. To guard our students from just worshiping how everyone else is and actually worshipping freely in how God is leading them, she said something that has stuck with us all, “when you have a thought of I need to lift my hand, hit my knees or whatever it is during worship, you know it’s not the devil telling you to do that so just be obedient to the Holy Spirit, put aside everyone else around you with all the religious pretexts, and just worship God freely however you feel, but most of all let it be between just you and God.” After speaking on this a couple of nights ago and the power of worship in our lives, we watched last night as we were literally in Gods presence and His beautiful creation, freedom came forth through the students and a couple of the leaders for the first time. It wasn’t anything but just being in the moment with God and for praising God, hands were lifted, kids were actually singing and singing loudly when they usually never do, hitting their knees in full surrender to God. It was such a powerful moment as we all came together to worship the God that has been changing our lives more and more in each day of this week.
After this awesome and real worship experience, as the kids and leaders had been so on fire to share God’s love with the people around them throughout the Lakeland community, it was honestly like the Holy Spirit poured kerosene on the fires God was already lighting up inside of them. Students literally took off running after people that went by to simply share Jesus with them and pray over them. They were living on mission, in the purest sense of what Jesus meant when he called us to this mission. I looked at Pastor Matt and we were jaw dropped and just like, “what is going on?” After a celebratory chest bump, we just sat there and watched as students were going left and right to each person they saw on mission to tell them of the greatest love there ever was.
I can’t say enough about how much God is working this week in all of our lives, I pray this has helped you see why the title has been changed from mission trip to “life-changing trip.” It’s truly amazing and so awesome to watch and just in case I forgot to mention, I want to put a small list of some ways the students have stepped out of their comfort zones today. I pray that you won’t just read this and be like “oh that’s great for them.” But I pray this will be an encouragement for you to see what God is doing through middle and high school students, He can and will do the same through you. The biggest lesson I’ve learned this week is not how “mission trips” changes lives, but how just being obedient in the mission God has already placed in front of us, spending time to listen to the Holy Spirits guidance and moving in where God is calling you. That’s living everyday on a mission trip wherever you are and whatever you’re doing!!!!
The list goes on and on and on but I just ask you continue praying for these students as they continue growing and learning, pray for the Dream center and all the people that work in this ministry, pray for the people in Lakeland and this community that God would continue to break down barriers of evil with His love and send laborers into this harvest to keep planting seeds in the lives of people in need. Also, pray for each person reading this that they would walk away not just enlightened but closer to God than ever before and challenged to really MOVE in this mission God has given us!!! Wow GOD IS GOOD!!!