BLOOMSBURG - Imagine a classroom where there is thick mud seeping into your shoes and the smell of mildew in the air. You are handed some boots and gloves.
Class has begun.
Senior students at Juniata Mennonite School have applied concepts learned in their Bible class as they journeyed to flood-ridden Columbia County last week.
Ted Kostich, Pastor of Thompsontown Baptist Church and Bible teacher at JMS took 12 of the 13 senior class members to Hazleton and Bloomsburg areas hit heavily by the flood waters of Hurricanes Irene and Lee.
Kostich's church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Relief effort, which is part of the North American Mission Board. The church has its own disaster relief trailer that is used for recovery operations.
Kostich had been explaining to his Bible class the importance of servant evangelism. The volunteer effort in Columbia County was a "great opportunity" for students to get the first-hand account of this type of evangelism, he said.
Kostich and his wife Karen, along with 12 JMS seniors and members of Thompsontown Baptist Church left at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14.
Feeding units were set up in the flood-stricken areas. The Southern Baptist feeding unit alone fed close to 8,000 people, Kostich said.
Students worked in shifts over the two day period. Four students would work in the feeding units by helping prepare meals. The American Red Cross delivered the meals and worked alongside the Baptist relief workers.
Students were busy opening cans of food, stirring stew and keeping inventory of food items at the Hazelton location.
Meanwhile another team of JMS students were working with volunteers in Bloomsburg as part of the "mud-out" crew.
Soggy property items, grime, hip boots layered with mud and tons of interesting smells awaited the crew.
The mud-out crew worked at three houses in two days. The first was the home of an elderly woman, the second the home of a cancer patient and the third was the home of a relative of the cancer patient. All three houses were part of a row of homes devastated by water. Two of the homes had water "up to the rafters" of the bottom floor, Kostich said.
"A 'mud-out' is not just about cleaning up mud," senior Tesla Ritter pointed out. "You could punch a wall and it would fall apart."
Standing in the homes destroyed by water damage brought things into perspective for Logan VanHorn. "A couple weeks ago we had that flash flooding here and we had four inches of water in our basement. I was so frustrated. Then I go these houses and they have like three feet. We need to realize to be thankful for what we have."
Each of the students was able to work in both locations. The young men slept overnight in a warehouse while the young ladies spent the night in a local church.
Girls had the opportunity to work in the mud and the boys had the chance to work in the kitchen.
Hannah Felker quickly admitted she does not like to be covered in dirt, but she knew that stepping out of her comfort zone was a step she needed to take.
This senior class trip was a work of service, the students shared. It wasn't a class vacation.
"I was impressed with my classmates' work ethic," noted Matt Von Fricken. "Everyone put their issues aside and worked hard."
"We did this to serve Christ, not to get out of school," Mary Beth Barner added.
The highlight of the trip for the students had nothing to do with clean-up or food preparation. Kostich and his wife Karen as well as some of the students had the opportunity to explain salvation through Jesus Christ to one of the homeowners.
Before the crew was ready to head back to Juniata County, Karen had the opportunity to pray with the woman as she accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior.
Kostich reminded the students that every effort they made during those two days was an act of service. Many of the students noted they felt more connection to people and more compassion as they worked at the mud-out locations. The Bible teacher and pastor reminded them that while they are opening cans of vegetables they can pray for the people who will eat that food.
"Before those meals go out there are people who pray over the meals," Kostich pointed out.
"We're really trying to teach the kids the importance of random acts of kindness," Kostich noted, referring to the homeowner who prayed with Karen. "She could not get over the fact that these students and Baptists came from the Harrisburg area all the way to Bloomsburg to help her."
Kostich took the eleventh grade JMS students back to the same area on Thursday as the work opportunities continue to be present even more than a week after the flood.
"There are still 3,600 people in shelters who have no house to go back to," he added.
JMS senior Scotty Meiser said he was fully expecting a mess of mud and debris before he arrived on scene.
"This really exceeded my expectations," he added. He recalled walking into a warehouse at 5:30 a.m. Everyone, he said was wearing a "bright yellow Southern Baptist T-shirt." He then looked down at his own red JMS basketball T-shirt and knew at that moment despite the clothing difference, age difference and other differences, everyone was learning the same classroom lesson.
They learned first-hand how to serve.