When most people hear the word, ‘Nicaragua,’ they think of a war-torn, violent place.
But members of Gateway Church typically think of their mission teams, which have gone to the country every year since 2003 to help build churches and do outreach projects.
This year, the team traveled to Tipitapa, a suburb of Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, to expand the first church they helped construct in 2003.
Team members Larry Basham and Mike Lamb were part of the original group, so it was a homecoming of sorts.
“It was a great feeling to be back and see the work just expand,” Basham said.
“In 2003, there was a great need to get a team in there,” Lamb said. “Tipitapa was an extremely poor area, and we are working the barrio.”
Lamb explained that the people in Tipitapa had the skills to build a church, but needed materials. For $7,500, an entire building can be constructed.
“We help them with their project, similar to how Habitat for Humanity works,” he said. “It’s the perfect marriage of resources and skills.”
Team members for this year’s trip include Basham, Lamb, Jackie Miller, Harvey Miller, Susan Warren, Josh Warren, Doug Haase and Paige Haase.
Paige Haase, a freelance photographer, said those who want to do mission work should not be discouraged because they lack construction skills.
“We don’t have to have the same exact skills they do,” she said. “This is something I wouldn’t normally do at all. To learn from them was a good experience. Harvey and Mike brought plumbing and electrical skills, and my husband works in sheet metal.”
Another potential difficulty can be trying to communicate in a different language, but Haase said it wasn’t an issue.
“People put up a barrier with that but somehow, everything works out fine,” she said.
Lamb added that while the main goal of the trip was to help expand a church, a big part of it was about relationships as well.
“One thing that is fun is that we spend a significant amount of time with the people,” he said. “We have breakfast and lunch with them. We worship together.”
Haase added that the Nicaraguans pray for them as well.
“To them, we are extraordinarily wealthy because we live in America,” she said. “For us to be there, digging in that dirt with them, they look at us and know it is God who has sent us there.”
In addition to helping expand the church in Tipitapa, team members also visited other churches in Ciudadela and Cristo Rey, which prior Gateway mission groups helped build.
They also provided an outreach ministry to 400 neighborhood children in Tipitapa.
The attitudes of the Nicaraguan people had a tremendous impact on Jackie Miller.
“There were so many grateful hearts,” she said. “You see the way they live and yet they are so grateful to have us there. They were thrilled to have a larger building to minister in. Many of them gave up paying jobs for their family to come and work. They talk about the (financial) sacrifice we make to come there, but it is no sacrifice compared to what they’re giving up.”
Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, has widespread underemployment and poverty. But despite that, team members said things have improved since the first time they visited in 2003.
“When we first went, it was desperately poor and violent, and nothing worked well,” Lamb said. “The roads were terrible and over 60 percent of the people did not have jobs.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, which compiles information on countries around the world, unemployment in Nicaragua for 2011 was 7.3 percent, though Managua still has a high public debt burden.
Harvey Miller has been to the country 10 times in the past five years. A lifelong woodworking hobbyist, he’s helped build and manage a vocational school.
“It was great to be able to reconnect with people,” he said. “Anytime you’ve been here before, you see people you recognize. It’s a big reunion.”
One story that had a huge impact on the mission team was that of a Tipitapa church pastor. In 2003, he was described as an abusive alcoholic who disparaged the efforts to build a church in his community.
“But seeing everyone work together was a real wake-up call for him,” said Haase. “He went to the Nicaragua Bible Institute to become a pastor and has helped plant two churches.”
The mission trips have shown Harvey Miller that the efforts of a few can make a huge difference.
“You see all the problems in the world and wonder what can you do?” he said. “But here, you have a great impact every time you go.”