No two mission trips are the same. Starting from the people with whom you work, to the places where you serve, each has its own character. This one, however, is distinctly different from many of the Hyde Park United Methodist’s past adult mission trips. This one is not international in some tropical country – no passport or plane ticket required. It is right here in our own state taking to our host church in Marco Island to continue assisting through United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in hurricane relief recovery from the damage of Hurricane Irma in 2017. This church would be our base for the week as we traveled to our job sites.

As we arrived in staggered groups of carpools, we set up our temporary home, unpacking linens and making up our cots. We will be responsible for our own transportation to and from the job site and for preparing all of our own food. Last night was a welcome treat as one generous family in the church paid for us all to have dinner at the local Mexican restaurant. It was a great way for us to begin to bond as a group, getting to know each other and the people we will be working with this week.

One of the first things I ever learned about doing mission trips is that you need to be flexible – and in our first meeting with Steve – who coordinates the UMCOR disaster recovery work in this area – we found out just how flexible we were going to have to be. We are a group of 15 people eager to answer the call to serve, so we required either one large, or a few small projects to keep us busy all week. Unfortunately, the large project that Steve had planned for us fell though at the last minute.  Apparently it turned out that the recipient of the work did not pass the vetting process, so Steve will be scrambling to find work to fill the week. We have assured him that we will do whatever is needed and travel wherever is necessary – we are here to serve, so use us.

There were two small jobs that Steve had successfully lined up for us and we attacked our first this morning. Our task was to paint the ceilings of a trailer. It had actually been painted once already (and new carpeting had been laid down), but there were inconsistencies and the homeowner requested that it be redone. Once this job was completed, this house, after two years, would be almost ready again for habitation. With 14 missioners plus Steve, and the onsite construction supervisors, JP and Steve, we had 19 able bodied individuals prepared to tackle the task. Though we pondered whether that many bodies would be tripping over each other in such a confined environment, and whether, indeed, there could possibly be enough work for all of us, we willingly loaded up and headed to Plantation Island.  Amazingly, there was enough work and enough supplies to divide the work. After taping down plastic to protect the new carpeting, we divided ourselves among the tasks – edging, trimming and rolling. And for those who felt painting-challenged, there was a stack of outlet and light switch covers that needed to be matched up in the appropriate place and screwed back on. With so many hands working, laughing and singing, our work was completed just in time for lunch.

Having carried a sack lunch with us, we drove a bit up the road to Chocoloskee, FL to the Smallwood Store. This store/museum in Everglades National Park, which has been run by the same family since 1906, sits right on the water, is raised up on stilts, and had two just-the-right-size-for-our-group picnic tables underneath where we broke bread together.  

With our only planned activity for the day completed, a number of us headed off to take an airboat ride. I’m a roller coaster fan, but rarely have I ever had so much fun in an amusement park. No doubt we were enveloped in amazing scenery, but in addition we had informative and entertaining captains (one of whom regaled us afterwards with tales of growing up here in the swamps). The ride was first quiet – there is that pesky Coast Guard ruled no-wake zone – and then exhilarating! Spitting up spray behind us we sped thru the mangrove tunnels making sharp turns that had us within inches of the vegetation. Oh, yes – there were also animal sightings along the way. We saw three different alligators (the largest of which was about 12 feet long, and all of which we got a bit too close to for my comfort!) and one raccoon who didn’t seem the least bit bothered when one of our boats pulled right up to the branch on which he was resting. Once we were back on shore we chatted for quite some time with Captain Brian who told us that he had no fear of the alligators in these waters – that he would more greatly fear a bull shark. We were a bit surprised that sharks would be in these waters. It was just moments later that he let out a holler – “Holy Cow!  What was THAT!” We had our backs to the water so all we got to see was the splash – but behind us a bull shark had jumped up out of the water and flopped onto his back.  We weren’t sure if maybe the shark heard our doubts and took umbrage with it (“I’ll show you!”), or perhaps he was after some prey. We did notice that the alligator who had been trolling around in that section of water seemed to have disappeared!

We made one final stop before heading back to the church for dinner. Included with the airboat ride was admission to The Boardwalk. Like any good Disney ride, it led you through a gift shop, but once on the other side there was a rustic boardwalk through the mangroves, at the end of which was the Gator Man who offered us an up-close-and-personal visit with a trio of alligators. The smallest was about 14 inches long while the largest was over 100 pounds. We (well MOST of us) held the smaller two and petted the larger one – something I thought I would NEVER do! Then we watched as he fed some larger, caged alligators their dinners (the ones he did not offer, nor did we request, to touch!). There were vultures in the cage with them scavenging for food as well so the Gator Man threw them a thigh. It was interesting to watch as one alligator held his food hanging out of his mouth – and one brave vulture tried to grab it right out of his jaws. Final score – Alligator 1, Vulture 0!

We have surely seen God all around us today – in the skies, in the parks, in the water, in the animals, and in each other. We are not sure what the rest of the week holds for us although we do know that Steve is working hard with his contacts in the area to use us while we are here. And we trust that, having followed God’s call to be here, he will find a way for us to serve.