When a Place Becomes a Home.

By: Kaylie Rosenkranz, Student, Spring Break Service Trip Participant


Community. Prayer. Simplicity. Service.  Bethlehem Farm’s four pillars couldn’t describe the farm’s magic more perfectly.  Bethlehem Farm was not just a service trip. It was a home.  From the very beginning when we arrived, the caretakers met us in the driveway and hugged us saying “welcome home.”  So many names were introduced to me all at once, I thought no way was I going to remember 30 other people that I’ve never met before. Yet, by the second day not only did I know their names, but their hobbies, talents, and personalities.  The caretakers, fellow students from UIC and Father Ryan High School, people of West Virginia, and us made a community a home.

Community. Yes, I expected to make some friends with others from different schools going on this trip, but I didn’t expect to make friends with the people living in West Virginia.  Community night was a night when neighbors on the mountain or people who the farm was helping with home improvement were invited to dinner and prayer. 17309382_10212062506618830_5165753652914561977_n  These people welcomed us into their community, told us their life stories, and shared their talents with us.  One man brought his fiddle and played music for us after dinner.  After everything they had lost, whether from last summer’s flood, fire, or unemployment, they still came with a smile on their face ready to enjoy great company and good food.  I learned something that night.  As long as I have faith, it doesn’t matter what challenges may occur, with His help, I will never be alone.  I will have a community that will help me.

Prayer.  We prayed before every meal, before we left for a work site, and with the family of those we were helping at the work site.  We also started and ended the day with prayer.  It was sometimes led by the caretakers or sometimes led by our work groups.  My favorite prayer was the one my group led.  It was closing prayer on the last day so we all felt like we were family. Out topic was love: love of ourselves, love of our neighbors, and love of God.  We talked about how all these types of love strength each other and help our faith grow.  We also found these types of love in the work we did at the farm.  Everything came full circle and we ended the night saying that we loved each other.  We truly did.

Simplicity.  This pillar was perhaps the hardest one of the week.  There was no technology meaning no phones, computers, or television. We even had an electricity fast one night.  The first day was rough, I was constantly reaching for my phone to text my friends or check the time, but then I realized that I didn’t have my phone with me.  Then, I asked myself the question, “Why do I need to know the time?”  It’s not like I knew what time the next activity was going to start. Time somewhat become pointless.  The concept was liberating.  I was free from the restraints of having a schedule which is something I always have at school.  Simplicity also meant saving the environment.  We had saw dust toilets and bucket showers.  I used both.  Bucket showers are now one of my favorite ways to take a shower.  The first time, it was only 30 degrees outside, but looking up at the sky while showering was amazing. A once in a lifetime opportunity to appreciate nature. the food we ate also reflected simplicity.  Most of the food was organic and came from neighbors.  This meant that we weren’t harming the soil with harmful chemicals or harming the air with CO2 when trucks drive produce to stores.  Bethlehem Farm taught me that I don’t need the comforts of luxury to enjoy life.  Everything I need is provided by nature God created.

Service.  The chores are never done when living on a farm.  We started the day with chores and then went to our work sites for 7-8 hours.  I feed chickens, raked leaves, cooked, pulled out nails from old wood, finished the siding of a roof, and started a foundation for an extension to a home. Even though it was hard work, I found joy in working with my friends and knowing that I was helping those were needed it.  Not only were we serving others, but we were ultimately serving God. We could see him through the people, food, and nature surrounding us.  God was present everywhere.

Without a doubt, I would go back to Bethlehem farm.  It’s a second home.  At first, I was looking for some big gesture or evidence of God’s presence while I was there, but then I realized that God comes silently.  I can feel the grass now.  We are on top of the hill looking out onto the vast landscape singing “Here I am Lord.”  Here I am.

Because I Went Anyways…

By: Nikki Merriss, Senior


“Change begins at the end of your comfort zone” – Roy T. Bennett

The quote above is on the back of a t-shirt I was given for a service trip with BREAKAWAY and I’m sure can be found in many other places. There’s a million reasons this quote is important, but I’d like to focus on what it means to me at the moment. Right now, this doesn’t just mean doing things I feel uncomfortable doing. I’m pretty accustomed to discomfort at the moment as far as my life is concerned. As a student who has worked as a camp counselor and orientation leader, has played a college sport, and has been a student leader for groups on campus, discomfort has become a way of life for me. For these reasons, I hold this quote near and dear to my heart. I’ve learned through my involvement that good things such as learning and personal growth develop out of stepping into the unknown. We learn from the scary experiences of doing things we’ve never done before, etc. Even with this knowledge, I still struggle with stepping into the unknown myself sometimes.

That being said, I have yet to seriously regret a time where I’ve stepped into the unknown. While sometimes I may not expect much from a situation or event, I always leave with something I value. It could be a friendship, maybe a lesson, or possibly even a new path directing me where to take my life next. But defining discomfort through the unknown is putting it too broadly. Sometimes we think we know how something’s going to be and make decisions based on that. This, I believe, is even more dangerous than simply deciding to opt out of something because of fear.

This brings me to defining what the quote above means to me at the moment. As a typical human, I attempt to predict the future and make decisions based on those predictions. The problem here is, people are really terrible at predicting how something might be. The average human who views the world with tunnel vision has a difficult time seeing beyond their idealistic predictions that skew reality. 30986589663_a0e9bf30ce_oLike any average person, I’ve done this too many times in my life. I’ve said to myself, “Well, it’s a waste of time to go here because it was boring when you went to a similar place.” But how similar are two places really? Aside from the typical McDonald’s chain kind of place, most places are pretty unique and unpredictable. Additionally, does a place really matter? Isn’t it the people that you go to a place for anyways?

Well, as the typical human I am, I once again made a poor prediction. I was asked about a month and a half ago to help lead a service trip with Appalachia Service Project in Jonesville, VA for BREAKAWAY. Right away, I took the opportunity because I was excited to work with the chaplain at my college, and I knew it would add to my experiences as a leader on campus. As the trip approached, I began dreading it more and more. In all honesty, I just wanted to stay home, work, and maybe watch some TV. I recently finished a long term at school, and all I yearned for was a little relaxation. The fact that I couldn’t back out from my commitment was the only reason I woke up at 5am to load up in a van and help drive our group of nine to VA.

I guess I could have come up with excuses to not go. Maybe I could have said I was having family issues, or I might have even said I simply didn’t want to go anymore. Based on the situation, I wouldn’t have chosen to opt out and I am absolutely thankful for that. Because I went anyways, I built deep relationships with eight other wonderful humans, I was able to serve an amazing family, I learned some valuable lessons, and I made some amazing memories. Going anyways, and doing anyways is what stepping out of your comfort zone is all about.

Stepping out of your comfort zone doesn’t always mean doing something even though you’re nervous. It doesn’t always mean doing something you’ve never done before. I live in the Appalachian Mountains, I’ve served people before, and I’ve worked alongside the chaplain to lead students before. Going on this trip didn’t add a ton of newness for me. I wasn’t nervous, I didn’t go anywhere I’d never been before, and I didn’t think I’d be doing anything I’d never done before. Because of this, I didn’t believe, at first, that I would be missing much if I didn’t go on the trip. I didn’t expect to gain a ton from going, but I’m glad that this trip showed me how bad I can be at predicting how something might be. The trip I had over DTerm to Jonesville, VA was nothing short of spectacular and I am overwhelmingly blessed to have gone. I made friends, made memories, and learned a ton.30955340264_5c8a992814_o

So I guess what I am trying to say here is that stepping out of your comfort zone is about doing it anyways. Doing even though you don’t always feel like it, doing even though you aren’t sure what it’s going to be like, and doing even though you’re afraid of the outcome. To me, there’s nothing more important in life than experience. We can choose to go out and learn by living, or we can just stay in and watch others live as the time passes us by. While sometimes it’s nice to just stay in and watch my favorite show, I am much more thankful for the times I decided to go do something even though there was a comfy couch sitting at home. By venturing out, not only do I have the chance to add a little something to the world around me, but the world around me also has a chance to add a little something to me. So next time you don’t feel like doing something, just do it anyways and see what happens. Maybe it’ll suck, but maybe it’ll be awesome. The 50% chance of it being awesome is totally worth it.

Fall Focus Retreat Video Highlights.

By: The Office of Ministry & Service

Community comes in many forms. We’d like to think community is at its best when in communion with one another—breaking bread together around a table, worshiping acoustically in a cozy living room, laughing at our inability to catch a football, meditating on Scripture in the wilderness, telling stories around the campfire, playing games that force us to make silly faces and more. In the end, we create memories. We become witnesses, together, to the beauty of retreating to a quiet place with a group of strangers and leaving as one, a community.

Student, Katie Kortkamp, put together a video that highlights our recent fall Focus retreat October 14th and 15th in Dixon, IL. Check it out!


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Get Away to Dig In

By: Sarah Kott, Senior and Intern for the Office of Ministry & Service

A few weeks ago, Focus hit the road in three red vans for our annual fall retreat at the Dixon House in Dixon, IL to take a break from our daily lives, get to know each other, and spend some quality time with God. Focus holds such a special place in my heart – not just as a student organization or worship service, but as a beautiful place to be challenged to grow by a loving Christian community. We share the burdens of life with one another and seek to spread the love of God to our campus.       30424677082_be869ca375_o

The word retreat typically references “escaping” or “getting away” from the pressures of life. Sure, we leave homework and school responsibilities back at campus, but the purpose of the Focus retreat is to restore and deepen our relationship with God and the Focus community. I remember my first retreat with Focus…it was in the winter and I met many people who would soon become some of my best friends. We plodded through snow in the great outdoors, worshipped, and drank hot chocolate together – is there a better way to bond?

At the winter retreat last year, after I had just returned from studying abroad, my relationship with God was suffering. I neglected all aspects of my faith while abroad and felt that I could coast along without investing time by reading the Bible or praying. I lost sight of the goodness God has poured out on me and I turned inward – which left me in a selfish state of mind.Thankfully, God brought me to John 10:10 at the winter retreat, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” God does not want us to simply “get by” (something we can identify with in a trimester system). He wants us to live full lives, glorifying him in the way we interact with others and how faithful we are in our relationship to him.

Since the winter retreat last year, Focus has been a source of constant reminders of God’s grace and love in my life. I am so thankful for friends that challenged me to think more positively in that particularly pessimistic time of my life.

29910726734_d223e7a3c8_oAs a senior at the fall retreat, I found myself observing the people around me, soaking in every drop of the last fall Focus retreat of my college career. I love to take a step back and observe in times like this. It allows me to remember the early days of college and be thankful for the changes and trials over these past four years. This retreat in particular made me feel good-old (fellow seniors will understand what I mean).There is a distinct sense of satisfaction in the moment I’m in now and a feeling of preparation for the next step in life. Watching new Focus attendees meet friends and pour into their relationship with the Lord serves as a constant reminder of the way God blesses us daily. Thankfulness spills out of me and I wait with anticipation to see where the Lord will have me go next!

To see the full Focus photo album go: here

Lessons From Nicaragua: The Service Trip of a Lifetime

By: Maria Requena, Junior

It has been exactly six days since I returned home from Las Penitas, Nicaragua. Six days since I left the beautiful country and its people. Six days since I’ve been surrounded by the sounds of construction, Spanish music, crashing waves, and farm animals. Six days since I have last served. Six days since I’ve been home and have had to readjust to the way we live, after having quickly accustomed to living with the NICAs. I knew the moment I hugged Santos and Alberto goodbye, tears in my eyes, for the last time, that I had changed, and the person who had come to Nicaragua just 10 days earlier would never be the same.

View from the roof of a local church in Leon, Nicaragua

Santos, Alberto, and Danilo were our Fuller Center Leaders. Through NCC Breakaway, a group of 16 of us embarked on an adventure to serve those in need through helping build homes through the Fuller Center Global Builders Program. Santos and Alberto spoke English as best they could, and myself and three others served as translators. I went with little expectations, or perceptions, and returned with the memory of the trip of a lifetime. They were so grateful to have us there, and looked out for us as if we were their own children. They served us probably more than we could have served them, and taught us more than we could teach them.

I learned how to mix concrete, bend rebar, how to build a roof, how to spackle. I rode in the back of a pickup truck, ate Nicaraguan Oreos, experienced the joy of my first and hopefully not last plantain chip. But even more importantly, I learned to redefine community, service, love, and kindness.

Mixing concrete for the walls

Our group helped put roofs on three houses, helped remodel the structure of a sinking home, and built a new house from the bottom up. The Fuller Center requires that the family who will be living in the house help in the construction of it. This gave us the opportunity to meet them, converse and learn about them. I mostly worked at the remodeling house, bending rebar and mixing concrete for the bulk of it. The family there consisted of a nurse, a fisherman, a little girl, and a little babe but three months old. Also custom to the process, community members would come by and volunteer their time, despite the fact that this house wasn’t for them, but their neighbor.

It was with them that I learned and experienced what a loving and kind community truly is. These people look after each other like family, and help each other out every way they can. They are very genuine and caring. After all, they are what they have; there is no apple store in sight, or mall. No traffic lights or stop signs, or even road names. Phones and computers are nowhere in sight. Many people walked barefoot, adults and small children alike. Animals were everywhere; pigs, horses, chicken, dogs, just freely roaming in and out of homes. They didn’t belong to any one person, rather to the community. They accept and are grateful for what they are given and what they have, and likewise, welcomed us into their community without a sweat. They not only wanted our help, but they also wanted to help us, and get to know us. They asked us questions about our lives, and likewise, we asked about theirs. They offered prayers and blessings, and luck in our endeavors. We never ran out of ice water. Never went hungry. We were never forced to overwork ourselves; if we began to tire, they told us to take a break in the shade to make sure we would stay healthy and safe. We came to serve them, but often times, it felt like they were serving us.

Progress on raising the roof

Through this I have learned that service is more than simply lending a hand, or helping a process move along faster. Service, at the core of it, is about caring. It’s learning about the people you are helping, and figuring out how you best fit into their story, not the other way around. Service is gratitude; appreciating everything you have been blessed with, and exhaling it back into your community. Service is learning to love; love those whom you serve as much as you love yourself. They will in return, love you as much as they love themselves, and serve you in your time of need. Service is sacrifice; give up your time, your energy, give up your money, your perfectly clean shirt. Giving your soul with gratitude, knowing and reassured that you are making a positive impact in someone else’s life. Service is kindness, in the rawest form of the word.

I came in, excited for adventure, enthused to learn, energized to make a difference. This open mindset made it perfect to absorb all of the love this community had to give. And sure, it was exhausting work, but at the end, I have returned home with even more excitement, enthusiasm, and energy, to serve. This trip has taught me that there are infinite ways to serve, and I don’t plan to rest until I have explored them all.

Group photo at the end of our build week on the Beach at Las Penitas, Nicaragua

From Doubts to Denver and Back

By: Terra Johnson, Sophomore

This past Spring Break (2016), I went on my second BREAKAWAY trip. Along with eight other girls, most of which were complete strangers, I traveled to Denver, Colorado to work with Center for Student Missions.

I was so ready to jump into a new city to help the homeless population in whatever way I could. While this is what I was told I would be doing, helping them, I believe that they helped me. The week was much more than giving food and other necessities out to those who are in need. It was about forming relationships and building a bridge between “us” and “them.” Listening to people talk about their struggles changed my mindset about homelessness. Many people get involved with drugs and other messed up stuff, yes, but so many people are just handed the worst of luck, and through everything the have endured, they are strong and faithful and refuse to let their current status destroy who they are. Each person I came into contact with took away some of my ignorance and inspired me to put a halt on my initial judgements about any person.

 (We are pointing to where we are from individually and where we are, in Denver.)

 If I could tell students that were interested in BREAKAWAY one thing, it would be that committing is the hardest part. Actually deciding to go is the most difficult decision within the entire trip process. Once I was on the trip, everything fell into place. We became a family, and I learned about myself, the world, and God’s people. Looking to where we are as a group now versus where we were as a group when we left, I laugh to myself thinking that I had any doubts about enjoying the trip. Looking back on my own path before the trip, I realize how breaking out of my comfort zone has changed my outlook on my future and how God might lead me on a more service-filled path than I originally thought.

(This is, obviously, me with the group in the background, looking off in the distance majestically.)

Wisdom From the Mountains: Part 1

By: Nathan Kiehn, Sophomore

Over Spring Break, I had the privilege of venturing with a group of North Central College students to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia and serving with Habitat for Humanity. In complete honesty, I had several doubts leading up to the trip. Though I’d attended a mission’s trip with my church’s youth group the previous summer, the thought of this upcoming journey was daunting and filled with questions. Would I be of help? Would I connect with people? Would the community we were heading into be safe, being mountainous and on the poorer side of American cultures? And aren’t there more comfortable, more self-fulfilling activities that I could be doing over my Spring Break instead of working every day for people I don’t know in a state I’m unfamiliar with?

 The answer to all of those questions? A resounding yes.

 That does, of course, sound funny when applied to the last question. I mean, heck, yes, sleeping in and playing videos games and writing stories would’ve been more comfortable and self-fulfilling for me. That’s where my heart wrestled with itself. However, I’d made a commitment, and my mom loves reminding me about how I need to be a man of my word. So I went, a little reserved, a little doubtful. And, despite my initial fears, I had an incredible time. I did some good work, made some great friends, and created some everlasting memories.

In honor of this trip, I’ve decided to compile some lessons I learned, many of which can be seen in lines that I’m quoting directly or indirectly here. We ran into some wise people over the course of our adventures in West Virginia, and we were also able to learn a lot during the activities and tasks we undertook. I wasn’t sure of what to expect. What I’d do, how I’d be affected by this trip. But I was affected, I was changed, and maybe some of that can be seen below.

“Hills are easier to climb than mountains.”

This definition for an apparently predominant difference between hills and mountains, given in the greatest sophistication and spirit of wit by the National Geographic Society, shows me that we were definitely not in hill country in West Virginia. We were surrounded by these imposing stone giants that looked beautiful no matter when or where you saw them. Whether they were illuminated by the sun or blanketed by nighttime darkness, whether they were clothed in trees or laden with snow, whether they were inhabited by no one or touched by houses and roads, they were staggeringly beautiful. While I realized the Appalachian Mountains is an area I would not choose to live in, I also knew that I would never get tired of looking at these impressive faces of rock.


Fantastic view off the side of Spruce Knob.

Being driven through the mountains every day as we headed back and forth from our work sites, looking at these mountains from both far below and high above, I was given a rare perspective of God’s creation that I had never held before. It took us approximately an hour or so to drive to and from our work sites daily, but it never got boring, not with the view we had. I learned to appreciate an area of the world I had never seen before, I saw a whole different facet of creation I had never perceived. C.S. Lewis talks about feeling “Joy,” a feeling akin to wonder. I don’t know if I felt his definition of “Joy” exactly, but I’m sure that it was pretty darn close.

“God makes the best chairs.”

This quote, directly taken from one of the guys who attended the trip, was a remark made as our group sat amongst the stones on top of Seneca Rocks, a massive rockface that is easily distinguishable from the rest of the mountains in the area and one that we decided to climb as one of our fun activities of the week. There are apparently various ways to climb Seneca Rocks, but we decided to take the “easy” path. I say “easy” with a hint of sarcasm and the use of double quotes, because I’m pretty sure these paths are not named by people with zero rock climbing experience. The path we took was not the sheerest by a long shot, but it was pretty steep and consisted of a trek up the side covered in trees and rocks and inhabited by at least one lizard that everyone gave one name but I decided to call “Curt.” Now, I am not the most athletic person in the world, and I typically shy away from certain athletic games or feats. Maybe I complain, maybe I quit in the middle. However—and I don’t know if this was because I was part of a group or if it was a God thing or what—but I felt none of that with this climb. Yes, it was really difficult and got my lungs and heart working overtime, but there was never a point where I thought about quitting or about stopping for an overly extended rest. I made it—we made it—and the spectacular view waiting for us was absolutely, totally worth the sore hands.


Literally on top of the world, glancing down from Seneca Rocks.

Mountains stretched out farther than my eyes could see; little vehicles rolled over the roads like toys; a couple hawks hung in the air, practically floating by us like animals on a baby mobile. Amazing. We sat there for about half an hour—I propped my feet up on one rock and leaned my back against another, creating one of these natural “chairs” for myself—enjoying the view and each other’s company. If I were to pick a singular moment that I could define as the best of the trip, this is it. Now, I don’t know how God’s mind worked when He created the world. Did He mold Seneca Rocks the way He did knowing we specifically would be there, climbing them and sitting on them? Or did He make the mountains as they are because they look beautiful and that having future generations climb them was a bonus? I don’t know what went through His head when He breathed these particular mountains into existence, but I’m so glad He made them. They’re spectacular.

 And the trip down? Much easier, thank you.

Copyright: March 30, 2016 (Service Trip 2016) as published on keenlinks.com