Camp Tecumseh in Ecuador
The Torchbearer Chronicles – Special Edition
Since 1924, Camp Tecumseh has transformed hearts, fostered growth, and developed young leaders on the banks of the Tippecanoe River. It’s home base. It’s where we equip our campers with the tools they need to go back into their own communities and make a difference.
It’s rare that we get to venture beyond our little corner of Indiana and bring Tecumseh experiences to other people in other places, but that’s exactly what Tom and Katrina Elliott, Matt Radding, Fizz Olsen, Kayla Bacon, and Mike Lang did when they traveled to Cayambe and Cangahua Ecuador with Riverside Covenant Church for a 10 day mission trip.
For the past 6 years, Riversiders have been traveling to Ecuador to build relationships, participate in cultural exchange, and provide manpower and funding to help support the initiatives of our friends in the churches of El Buen Pastor and Iglesia Emanuel which include a medical clinic, three Compassion International sites, and a home for at-risk children.
While the mornings consisted of time spent helping construct a new physical therapy center for the local clinic, with so many members of the Tecumseh family on this trip, the leaders wanted to do something special. For 5 days, the team provided afternoon Camp programs for over 300 kids at the Compassion International site at Iglesia Emanuel in Cayambe. Clinics like wiffleball, kickball, dance, friendship bracelets, parachute games, and more took up most of the afternoon before the team brought everybody back together for a chapel skit and a wrap up.
In the final days of the trip, the team traveled to Cangahua, home to Riverside’s Ecuadorian sister church, El Buen Pastor, to dedicate a new building that will house the compassion children, take part in a community project called a “minga”, and host a bonfire for the church members and the local community.
But the best mission trips aren’t about checking boxes off of a project list. They’re about growth, and challenge, and struggle, and sharing, and community. We hope these vignettes from the team members give you a better sense of our heart, and the real work that happened on the trip.
Growing as a Group
One of the best parts of my job at Camp is equipping a group of people so they can work towards a common goal together. We do this every summer with our group of counselors. We do this for the groups that come to the Leadership Center. We do this with our school groups. In the process of organizing the Camp portion of our trip, I hadn’t thought much about how comfortable the non-Camp staff would be working with and leading kids. Several members of our group were putting themselves in an uncomfortable position to learn new skills, and in turn, teach those skills to non-English speaking children.
While the non-Camp staff was growing more confident working with kids, I was trying to grow more confident in overcoming the language barrier. Not being able to answer questions posed to me individually, not being able to have one-on-one conversations with kids, and not being able to explain activities without a translator was all frustrating, and a problem I couldn’t solve on this trip. But it fueled a fire to learn the language as a community. Our church is committed to this Ecuadorian community moving forward. If we are to be as effective in living out our mission as we can be, we have to spend the time learning the language together so we can connect with people on a deeper level and get more done.
A group of us have already formed a Spanish Club that meets every other week before Church. We’re excited to see not only how this creates further ministry opportunities in Ecuador, but also with the local Latino community. We are open to what God has for us with this.
As camping professionals, it’s our job to meet members of a team where they are, and walk them through the process of growth. By the end of the week, after a week of camp programs, it was amazing to see how much our entire group grew in confidence. Pressing into uncomfortable situations together is how we grow both individually, and in relationship with others.
Let Your Light Shine
Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven. – Matthew 5:16
Every Friday night during summer camp, we end our week together with that mission, a challenge to all of our campers and staff to let their light shine for others as they leave the training ground of Tecumseh. At Camp we live by the I’m Third motto. It’s not a way of life reserved for our time at Camp. Instead, it’s meant to be something we bring home with us as we strive to be more like Jesus every day. I’m proud to be part of an organization that creates an environment where kids can come together and grow in faith, and continue that journey for the rest of their lives.
When a group of staff from Camp felt the call to join the team in Ecuador, I knew this would be a special opportunity to share the love of God beyond our little corner of the world and let our light shine for others. Living and working together with the Tecumseh family creates a special bond, and being able to take that bond God used for our Camp community–our talents, skills, and experiences–to shine a light for the kids in Ecuador in a simple, but powerful way. In putting on a mini-Camp for the kids at the Compassion site, we had a chance to bring joy to kids through games, songs, and skits that have been successful 100’s of times here at Tecumseh. But this was different. We didn’t speak the same language. We were teaching them games they didn’t know. I’m sure our singing and dancing seemed odd at times, but it didn’t really matter. These kids reminded me that we have so much in common. We may come from vastly different parts of the world with different languages and traditions, but love overcomes all of that. Love is the great unifier of God’s people. Our focus was on being present, building relationships, and learning from one another. No matter where we come from, we want to feel like we’re part of something. We want to feel loved. We want to feel connected to those around us.
Too often we over complicate life. I know I do. But it can be simple, and that’s what God taught me in my time in Ecuador. God calls us to be more like him, and to love more like him, every single day.
How many gringos can fit in the back of a truck? If you’re an insurance underwriter, or Kyle Linback, the answer is zero. If you’re on a mission trip in a developing country where the words “to code” aren’t part of the vocabulary, 13 seemed as good a number as any.
Jose Tuqueres, the pastor of Iglesia Emanuel called us over to his truck and most of the team piled into the back. I watched the little Ford ranger bounce up the cobblestone street and out of view, a gaggle of Riversiders in the back clinging to handrails, jackets, and waists while laughing boisterously in the midst of the world’s most precarious team building challenge.
Kayla, Fizz, and I, decided to hang back and wait for the next one. Our chauffeur, Rolando Escolar, was inside the clinic. Having just finished a successful all-afternoon Camp program for 300 compassion children, our next stop was a mountain lookout with views of the entire city and surrounding volcanoes. As we waited for Rolando–the photographer inside me absolutely giddy at the prospect of our next location and the images I could make–our trip facilitator Richard came outside. “Guys, it might be a little while. Rolando is inside talking with a mother who is in jeopardy of losing her child. She didn’t know where else to go, so she came to Rolando.”
See, that’s the thing about our chauffeurs. In between shuttling us from Compassion site to construction site to hotel, Rolando and Jose were making appointments at the courthouse to advocate for abused children. While we were laying block, and pouring concrete, and teaching kids how to play wiffleball, they’d quietly disappear for extended periods of time so they could have conversations with members of the community about a need only these men could provide.
Do I believe we did beneficial work in Ecuador? Of course. Do I believe in the ongoing work Riverside has been doing in Ecuador for the last 6 years to build community and strengthen relationships? Absolutely. Do I believe for a second that my presence in Ecuador, for that one short week, can compare in any way to the monumental, ongoing, work these two men are doing every single day? Absolutely not.
I think that’s what God was trying to show me. That becoming a pillar of your community isn’t about being the smartest guy in the room. It’s not about having the most money or the most resources or the most power. It’s about showing up. Every time. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. It’s about caring more for the people around you than yourself. It’s about extending God’s love to others sacrificially to all those we come in contact with.
More importantly, the work that God is calling us to do, and the work we’re best equipped to do isn’t always halfway around the world. It’s in our own backyards. It’s in our own communities. It’s with our friends and neighbors. Sometimes we can make the mistake of believing that developing countries are more in need of God’s love than us, because they don’t have the same level of material wealth that we do, but that’s just not true. Every community needs it. Even the wealthy ones. Even the Christian ones. Every community needs giants like Rolando and Jose who show up everyday and fight for the changes they believe they can make, who believe in their vision of community, and invest in the people who are part of it.
Jose and Rolando taught me that it’s my job to show up. It’s my job to plant myself in a community and dig in to the hard work of making it better. And it’s your job too.
After waiting near the truck for awhile, Rolando came out. He smiled his big Ecuadorian smile, banged on the truck bed to signal that it was time to go, and we left. As we drove up the mountain, the photos I was so looking forward to making just didn’t seem that important anymore.
Worthy of Friendship
The night before the trip, I was sitting on my suitcase. I was frustrated because (per usual) I had overpacked. My luggage was two pounds overweight. Sigh.
I can never sleep the night before a big adventure. It’s equal parts nerves and excitement. I was laying down when my anxiety kicked in. What if I wasn’t helpful enough during construction? What if the altitude got to me and I slowed people down? What if this, what if that?
I’ve always felt that there’s work here at home that I’m better suited for. I’ve always felt that donating my money directly to a cause would be far more beneficial than my physical presence on a trip. I’ve just never believed anything I could do would be beneficial, so I’ll just stay here. Except I was so wrong. And I’ve never been so glad to be proven wrong.
During the trip we visited Casa Hogar, a home for at-risk children. Never have I felt so hopeless and yet full of hope simultaneously. We played and interacted with these sweet kids who have gone through unimaginable suffering, often at the hands of family, and my heart was broken in ways it never had been before. The staff works tirelessly through the day and night to provide a stable, loving environment where these kids can grow and thrive, and I’m so grateful people like them exist.
On the first day, the high school girls arrived home just as we were leaving. One of the girls, 14 years old but looking every bit of 11 or 12, came up to me and wouldn’t let go of me. Literally. I had seen her briefly on a tour the day before. We made eye contact and smiled at each other, then she ran away. But that night, she begged me not to leave, and I promised I would be back. She had tears in her eyes when I left because she didn’t believe me. Tears. She had known me for a collective five minutes, and was that upset when I left. I wish I could bundle up every feeling of love, of worth, of value, of comfort, of security that I’ve EVER felt, give it all up, every last bit of it, and give it to her. Over the next few days, whenever we got to stop back in, she didn’t leave my side. I taught her some English, she made me a friendship bracelet after I taught her how to do it. We danced. We cried together. We laughed SO HARD together. Walking away from her on the last day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I don’t know what this taught me. I’m still processing it, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to express how profoundly she and her heart impacted me. I do know that I am changed for the good because she saw something in me and wanted to create a bond with it. I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to find out what that was and be worthy of her friendship.
Trust the Community
After working mostly in Cayambe, we finished our trip in Cangahua. This is where our church family has been going for the last 6 years. Same people. Same love. This was my third time with these people, and as we arrived, it felt like home. It felt like family.
The first thing on the docket with them was a “minga”, a community get together to work on a single project. Much like a barn raising. Although we didn’t raise any barns, we did lay some sidewalk!
Much to our surprise, in the afternoon, the pastor had a new idea, an idea he had mentioned as a possibility every time we’ve come. A possibility that, up until this moment, I had felt very thankful every time it didn’t happen. But this time, the pastor pulled out a stack of Spanish tracts. With a big smile on his face, he explained that we were breaking up into small groups and going door to door. We’d knock on doors, pass out tracts, and if we were invited in, would share the gospel. In addition, we would be inviting them to a bonfire that evening at the church for a food and a program. A bonfire we were going to be leading. A bonfire we didn’t know about.
I was skeptical, so I reminded myself (and our team) that our role was to come alongside our friends in the work they are already doing here. This is what they are doing, so we’ll come alongside them. But in my mind, it was clear that we could have accomplished much more if we had laid another sidewalk.
We split into groups. A few gringos. A few Ecuadorians. A translator. And a big bundle of Spanish gospel tracts. We went door to door for an hour, and when we got back, I had to admit that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Every person we talked to received us and said they would come to the bonfire.
We got back and started preparing hobo dinners. At 6:00pm, a few people started showing up. At 7:00pm over 100 people were there. They actually came! We played some games with them and invited them inside the church building where we performed the chapel skit “Three Trees.” They were captivated. We wrapped up and the pastor invited them to church the next morning. While they would likely show up for s’mores and a few games, they probably wouldn’t show up for a church service. But they did.
That next morning, we worshiped with our brothers and sisters in El Buen Pastor for the first time ever, and it was packed. At this moment, I ate a large piece of humble pie. It turns out that these people have a pulse for their own culture and community. It turns out they were moving as the spirit led them. And thankfully, we had the prviledge of being part of it.
This moment made me wonder how much more of an impact I could make right here in our own community, if I would lay my own agenda aside more often. If I would humble myself and submit to His direction. Even if it involves tracts. The people who are there day in and day out, showing up, they are the ones making a massive difference. And we were lucky to come alongside them in their work.