Wreck on journey doesn’t deter college students from mission

Southern Arkansas University students Jessi Moore and Antonio Phillips make repairs to a Baton Rouge, Lousiana, home damaged by flood waters. Several Arkansas campus ministries partnered with United Methodist-related Ozark Mission Project and Revive225 of First UMC Baton Rouge to help with flood recovery, and the Arkansas Conference Board of Higher Education and Ministry provided a grant to make the trip affordable for all students.

By Amy Forbus

For longer than the Rev. Jessica Durand has served as pastor of the Henderson State University/Ouachita Baptist University Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry has invited students to use part of their winter break to engage in mission.

Unlike previous years, though, they had an unexpected decision to make two hours from their destination of flood-damaged Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“We always travel with SAU [the Southern Arkansas University Wesley Foundation] to make sure that if there’s a problem that there’s a group of us,” Durand said.

This time, that problem came along.

Just past Alexandria, Louisiana, on Interstate 49, with the Magnolia/Arkadelphia caravan going at full speed, a tire blew out on the van carrying four Henderson State students, one University of Central Arkansas student and two adult leaders. Durand tried to maintain control of the vehicle, thinking, “I have people with me! I don’t want to hit anybody! There are people in other cars!” The van came to a stop on its side in the median, and the Rev. Mark Lasater, the SAU Wesley pastor following behind it, called 911 while SAU students ran to those in the wrecked van. An off-duty EMT also stopped to help everyone safely evacuate.

“I was in shock, but I was not hurt, so I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to go on,” Durand said. Five passengers went to the hospital in Alexandria to be checked for injuries. The van, which belonged to St. Andrew UMC Arkadelphia, was totaled. Durand expressed gratefulness to the congregation for all the years they had provided the van as a way of helping young people engage in mission.

After it became clear no one was injured, the team made a unanimous decision to continue on to the mission event.

“I said, ‘If this is it, and y’all want to go home, we will figure out a way to get you home, and I will stay with you as long as I need to to make that happen,’” Durand said. “But by the time everybody had been checked out at the hospital and had talked to their parents, everybody said, ‘No, I want to go on.’”

Coordinated by Little Rock-based Ozark Mission Project (OMP) in partnership with Revive225, a ministry of First UMC Baton Rouge, the winter break mission drew more than 85 attendees, a significant increase from the usual average of about 60. Crews took on a variety of projects; according to Alex Byo, director of Revive225, the group worked at 11 different homes during their time there, helping a total of about 40 individual neighbors.

This winter break group was the largest that Revive225 has hosted in their relatively young existence. “They are a really neat project and group, and we enjoyed getting to know them,” Durand said, complimenting them on the wonderful Cajun food the students enjoyed each night after a day of hard work.

OMP mission coordinator Carissa Tarkington said that this mission had 91 registered to participate, hailing from Arkansas State University Wesley, SAU Wesley, University of Arkansas Wesley and Henderson State/Ouachita Baptist Wesley. The total also includes some students who are not affiliated with a Wesley Foundation. The Arkansas Conference Board of Higher Education and Ministry provided a $7,500 grant to help make the trip affordable for all college students who wished to go.

Jess Crum, a student involved in ministry with the Arkansas State Wesley Foundation, cuts a piece of drywall.

Once in Baton Rouge, the group of travelers who had been in the van during the accident dispersed to various teams, but many of them did similar work. “I think everybody in the van was involved with insulating and putting up drywall,” Durand said. She added that while all of the van’s passengers experienced some soreness from being jostled around on the way there, “I think we all did OK” doing the work. Durand continues to follow up with the students to provide spiritual care as they recover from the experience.

She says the stories of those they helped have stayed with them after the journey. For example, her team helped a musician who had been unable to live in her own home for months because of the severe water damage. Flood waters outside this neighbor’s home had been so high that she had to stand on the roof of a car until someone came by in a boat to rescue her.

“She did not live in the flood zone, so she did not have flood insurance,” Durand said. “The work that we managed to get done meant that she was able to move back into her home the day after we were finished.”

Durand also says that her campus ministry’s bond with OMP is even stronger after this experience. “We’ve really strengthened those ties, and they’re a great help in planning and making all those connections,” she said.