Youth group strives to be ‘hope, love, light’ to neighbors

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After missing the opportunity in 2020 due to COVID-19, a youth group from a small northern Illinois town came to Coalmont, Tennessee, in July for its mission trip at Mountain T.O.P., a rural outreach project.

The group consisted of 22 youth and seven adults from two small congregations, Oregon United Methodist Church and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oregon, Illinois — which has a population of fewer than 4,000.

Until last year, the two churches had shared a mission trip every year since 2011. Oregon United Methodist raised money for the 2020 mission trip, but had to cancel and decided to use it for this year’s mission trip instead.

“However, we got more donations of some items that we would use during the mission trip from two congregations,” said Nancy Crandall, the youth director of Oregon United Methodist.

Her ministry goal through annual mission trips is to give the youth group different experiences as Christians.

“It is important for youth to see the different living conditions in this country,” she said. “We’ve gone to urban areas, Native American reservations. Through the mission trip, we give the youth different experiences, open their eyes wide to a different part of America, and enhance their lives. The mission trip gave them a true sense of servanthood.”

Mission team members hold a morning devotional at the Mountain T.O.P. ministry headquarters in Coalmont, Tenn., before leaving for their work site. Photo by the Rev. Thomas Kim, UM News.
Mission team members hold a morning devotional at the Mountain T.O.P. ministry headquarters in Coalmont, Tenn., before leaving for their work site. Photo by the Rev. Thomas Kim, UM News.

For some of the youth, she noted, it was their first trip outside their hometown.

Crandall believes that Mountain T.O.P. is one of the places that can provide her youth group that kind of experience.

Mountain T.O.P. is a mission organization that assigns youth and adult campers places of mission in Grundy County, Tennessee, and which has worked in partnership with the South Cumberland Plateau community since 1975.

Julie Keel, program director and interim executive director, noted that the poverty level of Grundy County is one of the highest in Tennessee.

“Mountain T.O.P. is a partnership ministry with a goal to help meet the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of all people we encounter,” she said. “To achieve this goal, we offer a variety of mission-based programs for youth and adults. Participants can choose to serve with Mountain T.O.P. through home repair projects or day camp programs. It is key for God’s creation that we hope everybody has a healthy place to stay.”

COVID-19 forced the ministry to find a new model to make its program accessible. The mission program’s work ranges from simple service projects to major home improvements such as room additions, repairing floors and roofs.

“I hope campers can continue to develop complex faith to be able to say ‘why and how,’ rather than saying ‘I am grateful for this or that,’” Keel said.

Nora Hammer (right) from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oregon, Ill., reads with Lillian Clark, 8, at a volunteer worksite in Gruetli-Laager, Tenn. Photo by the Rev. Thomas Kim, UM News.
Nora Hammer (right) from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oregon, Ill., reads with Lillian Clark, 8, at a volunteer worksite in Gruetli-Laager, Tenn. Photo by the Rev. Thomas Kim, UM News.

Campers begin their mornings in the cafeteria at 7:30 a.m. with breakfast, personal devotion time and small group meetings before going to mission sites.

Mel Noon, a member of Oregon United Methodist Church, spoke to UM News just before the campers spread out to have their personal devotion time.

“I have been since 2009 when my daughter Brenna was 6 years old, and now she is going to attend college,” she said. “I am so happy to be part of the youth mission group and to see her and other youth growing and serving others.”

At 9:25 a.m., three youth and an adult from the Oregon group visited a home in Gruetli-Laager, Tennessee. It was the first home of the four children’s day camps they were assigned in a day. The day camp was like a mobile vacation Bible school led by youth. They read a book, played games and did craftwork for an hour, then moved to another home. 

“I think it is a way to spread the love of God with others while we are having a great time with them,” said Nora Hammer, an Oregon High School sophomore. “My parents loved the fact that we came here. My mom may join the trip next year.”

Brenna Noon, who will attend the University of Wisconsin Platteville this fall, was repairing the porch of a house in Tracy City, Tennessee. She is a veteran of mission trips, having participated in five.

“The mission trip is a great way to use the skills I learned from home for God in God’s way and in God’s name,” she said.

Noon added that her mission trips have allowed her to connect with others from many different states, as well as strengthen her relationship with her family.

At 72, Dave Saam is the oldest among the Oregon mission team. He joined the group after a recent heart procedure.

When asked why he participated in the mission trip, he said he thinks he was called.

“God is right here where we come to serve … This is the future of our church,” Saam said. “When I sit there and watch these kids grow and watch confirmation, I know that this church is in good hands. The church keeps going.”

The Rev. Megan Smick, pastor of Oregon United Methodist, was so delighted and proud of her church’s youth mission team.

“Our congregation is 100% behind them,” she said. “The church did all they can do to support the mission trip. I am grateful for the youth director, Nancy Crandall, and for her effective leadership. All I do is to stay out of her way. They are very faithful to our mission: To be hope, love, and light to our neighbors.”

Kim is director of Korean and Asian news at United Methodist Communications. Contact him at To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.


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