UF Students spend spring break on mission in South Sudan

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Pictured Above: Missionary team from left, Emma, Kristian, Parker and  Chad are shown with Pastor Emma Lobo, the pastor of the church they worked with and the missionary couple they worked with. 

GAINESVILLE–South Sudan in East Africa is not your typical spring break destination for today’s college students, but when the opportunity arose to go there on a mission trip, Emma Formet was all in.

So were Parker Boss and Kristian Kolehmainen. All three college students are members of the University of Florida’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries in Gainesville.

On this trip they would be working with Empower One, an organization that “empowers local leaders in the hard places of Africa to establish churches among the unreached and under-engaged peoples.” On this trip the team would accompany Empower One Director Chad Vandiver to accomplish three tasks:

  1. Casting a vision for what a future trip would look like for a full BCM student team during the summer
  2. Supporting current long-term missionaries with evangelizing
  3. Helping facilitate a discipleship conference.
Women’s section of the Discipleship Conference in South Sudan.

It was in January when the three learned of this trip and answered God’s call to go during their spring break in March. Without a lot of time for fundraising, they had to get busy.

“In two weeks, I made about 75 calls and sent out 150 letters. I got on this as quickly as I could,” Formet said. “We each raised the $4,000 before we left in March. It was really cool to see how the Lord worked out the timing.”

Of course, when you share that you’re going to South Sudan – one of the most impoverished nations in the world – on a mission trip for spring break, it can catch some of your fellow college students off guard, like it did for these three. Some people wondered how dangerous it might be.

“I was aware of safety concerns, but I was not letting that keep me in a spirit of fear,” Kolehmainen said. “A young couple, both missionaries from Florida, just had their first kid and are living there. If it’s safe enough for them, I figured it was safe enough for us. Overall, I felt safe the whole trip, but I was on my toes the whole time, aware that something could happen.”

Formet said talking about the trip beforehand with classmates gave her opportunities to share her faith.

“It was an incredible evangelistic tool,” she said. “I would tell them about the purpose of our trip in sharing the gospel and making known the name of Jesus. Like in my Organic Chemistry 2 lab, I got to share the gospel with a whole group of students while we were waiting for one of our reactions to finish. It was so cool.”

Emma is shown with attendees of the women’s section of the Discipleship Conference

Door-to-door evangelizing

For the first half of the trip, the team worked with missionaries in the capital city of Juba to do door-to-door evangelizing and invite people to the local church. The students were thankful for the incredible response with 32 people making decisions for Christ during that two-day period.

“It was just amazing,” Boss said. “All the people we reached out to on Saturday were in church on Sunday morning, and it was just wonderful to see the Lord was already at work in hearts and lives there, and we just came alongside and got to see that.”

Since South Sudan was originally settled by England, many people there speak English, which made it easy for the team to talk with local residents. Others spoke Arabic, and the team had interpreters to help with translations.

Kolehmainen said he loved seeing how the people were so open and receptive to the gospel. “It’s a huge contrast to here in America where most people are aware of Christianity but choose to reject it or not seek it. There, people have already accepted that Christianity is true, but they didn’t know how to pursue it.”

The standout moment for Boss was when a drunken soldier called out to him while they were evangelizing in the city. The more they spoke back and forth as Boss shared the gospel, the more sober the man seemed to get, even speaking in clear and complete sentences.

“The whole experience was very sobering to me because it was none of my efforts that did that,” Boss said. “It was a drunk guy on the side of the street calling out to me, and the Lord was already at work in his heart. I just stepped out in obedience and did what I was supposed to do, and he came to know the Lord. That to me was the biggest thing – just to see that happen before my eyes.”

Discipleship conference

Due to warfare going on and poor conditions of the roads, the team had to take a short plane ride from Juba to their next destination, the village of Yei, where they would help lead a discipleship conference.

At the two-day conference, which attracted both local and regional believers and church leaders, Kolehmainen spoke about salvation by grace and walking daily with the Lord. “Many people there believe salvation comes through good works, but that’s not true. I also shared how to learn from the word of God, memorize Scripture and have a daily quiet time,” he said.

Boss spoke on sanctification. “These were topics to benefit the local population,” he said. “We wanted to dive deep into the basics of our faith to strengthen their fight against the devil’s schemes in that area.”

Formet taught during the women’s section of the conference. “I taught them through a discipleship curriculum – how to share the gospel, how to share your testimony, practical tools for leading a Bible study and how to look for people to disciple and for people to disciple you,” she said. “Women and mothers are often the best disciple-makers.”

But it was the worship experiences that were most memorable for her.

“The worship from Africa is unparalleled. It cannot be replicated,” she said. “It was such a joyous experience. These are folks who are genuinely dependent on the Lord for every meal, for shelter and every job opportunity. Seeing the amount of joy through their struggles and despite their circumstances was very encouraging.”

‘Never the same’

Each of the students is now preparing for the next mission trip. At UF’s BCM, students are taught that mission trips like this are expected, said Eddie Gilley, BCM director.

‘Our goal is to have every student spend at least two weeks sharing Jesus in a cross-cultural experience either through us or their local church during their college career. We know that if they do, they will never be the same.’

Eddie Gilley Director, Baptist Campus Ministries, University of Florida

“Our goal is to have every student spend at least two weeks sharing Jesus in a cross-cultural experience either through us or their local church during their college career. We know that if they do, they will never be the same,” he said.

“They may not be called to go fulltime to the nations, but they will always be more likely to pray for the nations, pray for those who serve with the IMB and more likely to give to mission efforts for the rest of their lives. You can’t go without coming back changed!”

Gilley said it was great to watch it all unfold.

 “Parker, Emma and Kristian are three of our really great leaders, so when they heard about the opportunity to go on short notice, they were ready,” he said.

“They had their passports. They cleared their schedules and trusted God to come through with the finances. It’s great when you see students catch the vision for being ready to go at a moment’s notice and then watch them implement it!”

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