Westminster: Ja- makin’ a difference

From left, front: Andy Sundal, Ashley Arhart; middle: Emily Sundal, Alyssa Ofstedahl, Pastor Mike Olmsted and back: Tommy Olmsted and Max Coffey, all were part of a 28-person mission to Jamaica from Westminster Presbyterian Church. -- Matt Peterson/matt.peterson@austindailyherald.com

Though winter may be a better time to take a trip to Jamaica, three weeks ago was the best time for members from Westminster Presbyterian Church.

They returned from a one-week mission in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where they helped build an addiction recovery center and improved some residential housing.

Members from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Austin, along with Jamaican natives, helped build additions on houses and start a new addiction recovery program. -- Photo provided

“We found a good project and program we could build on,” said Westminster Pastor Mike Olmsted, who looks for different mission trips for his congregation each year.

This mission was Westminster’s first effort in Jamaica, something Olmsted and the congregation hope to serve on again in several years.

During their trip, Olmsted, several adults and many recently graduated high school seniors split into two groups and joined a larger cause: Next Step Ministries. Next Step Ministries has coordinated efforts with many other churches, and Westminster was one of the first to work on the addiction recovery center. The project will last anywhere from five to seven years. Though Olmsted and his group saw the bright aspects to travel in Jamaica, they largely saw poverty and people in need.

“It’s a totally different reality,” Olmsted said.

Olmsted’s group knew what to expect, as they had background information on their mission trip. But they had still never seen the real side of Jamaica.

“Initially going in, you see these really nice resorts and stuff, then you see tons of overgrown houses.” said Emily Sundal, mission member from Austin. “They just don’t have the funds to continue building.”

Sundal and others spoke of the abundance of unfinished ­houses in the region and how minimal pay prevents people from improving their living situation.

“I was kind of expecting some poverty, but you can never just guess what’s going to be there,” said mission member Ashley Arhart. “It did kind of come as a surprise to me.”

So when Westminster’s group arrived in Montego Bay, they went to work in the heat and got used to the conditions many Jamaicans live in.

“It sounds a lot easier than it was,” Olmsted said, and added the group didn’t get to stay in the best living quarters or have access to hot or cold water. “It was hard work and brutal conditions, but it was awesome.”

Some of Olmsted’s members agree; the trip was awesome.

“It’s just a whole new experience, and it really helps you realize how fortunate you are,” said Alyssa Ofstedahl. “You go down to help people, but you gain so much yourself.”

One may think a small mission group working for one week might not make much of a difference, but Westminster’s congregation said otherwise.

Each mission group is part of an ongoing effort, and each group gets to work in a specialized area around the same people each day.

“That’s the one way of making it feel like you’ve left something behind,” Olmsted said. “You can stand back and say, ‘I made a difference.’”

And to Olmsted’s group, it was all about building relationships. Olmsted’s group said many of the kids, sometimes 10 and younger, expressed how they wanted the mission groups to stay. Members said they felt closer to some of the people in Jamaica than people they’ve met in Austin.

They hope to return to Jamaica near the project’s completion.

“I definitely want to go on more mission trips,” Sundal said.

“Anyone who’s even thought about (missionary work), find a church,” she added. “Find a way. It really will change your life.”

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