Overseas trip broadens horizons for Christian youth

Matt Gardner
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Left to right: Stephen Gobeil, Jeremy Fehr, Shad Hodgman and Mark Hodgman recently returned from a four-and-half-month overseas trip that saw them promoting the Christian faith through performance art at schools and churches in India, England and Germany.

Even the shortest trip to foreign lands can leave a significant impression on the traveller -- and the longer the trip, the greater the effect.

A recent trip by four Saskatchewan youths -- three from Prince Albert, one from Nipawin -- is an illustrative example.

Last month, Stephen Gobeil, Jeremy Fehr and brothers Shad and Mark Hodgman returned from an epic overseas journey lasting four and a half months, which saw them provide entertainment for schools and churches in India, Germany and England.

On Sunday evening, the four presented a concert and informational evening at Alliance Church in which they shared stories from their globetrotting adventure.

Expressing sentiments shared by his fellow travellers, Shad, 19, noted, “I think I got a greater understanding of global culture, or just how incredibly different the other parts of the world are than Canada.

“Just getting a view of how the majority of the world lives different than we live … it kind of broadens your worldview.”

The four young men -- all of whom but Jeremy, 21, are graduates of Carlton Comprehensive Public High School -- made their trip through the Calgary-based group Action Ventures.

A subsidiary of the umbrella organization Action International Ministries, the group seeks to promote the Christian faith around the world through the arts, often working with the urban poor in areas throughout Asia, Africa and Europe.

“What we did overseas is we were invited by a pastor in Mumbai and he just said, ‘Come and help out at my church,’ so we did that,” said Mark, 21. “Then a school division there invited us to do these kind of programs at their schools in Mumbai, so we did skits and songs and illusions at … assembly-type things.”

“We were also invited by a few different pastors in England and we did stuff in their churches, did some stuff in one high school, and we did some stuff at a YMCA,” he added.

“In each of those things, we primarily played music and did a few dramas … but it was just kind of whatever the pastors wanted us to do. And then we were also invited in Germany too. We did a lot of music in YMCA buildings in and around the section of Germany.”

In their musical ensemble -- which plays what Shad described as a form of “church music” influenced by folk and rock -- Stephen, 20, plays electric guitar and sings, Jeremy handles the keyboards, Mark serves as drummer while Shad sings and plays bass.

Departing from Canada in late November, the travellers first headed to the Indian city of Mumbai.

The two and a half months they stayed in the city -- during which they shared an apartment together and performed for an estimated 25,000 people in 40 different schools -- represented something of a culture shock for the Saskatchewan troupe.

“We found out what it was like to walk down a street/toilet,” Mark joked.

Yet their immersion in a different culture quickly engendered a sense of respect for the open-minded nature of the people they met, who listened attentively as the travellers explained what Mark referred to as their “hope in Jesus.”

In turn, the four Canadians learned much from those they encountered.

“In India it was really cool because it’s really respectful of each other’s beliefs … not that they’ll just say, ‘Oh, it’s fine for you,’ but they’ll take the time to listen to you and then you take the time to listen to them,” Mark said.

He added, “Rather than (saying), ‘Let’s just make this taboo so no one can talk about it and no one will get offended,’ it was just, ‘Let’s talk about it and respectfully listen to each other.’”

Language was rarely an issue, since English is one of India’s national languages and is taught to children in schools.

You get to see how Christianity can be in different cultures … not just how your church would go, but how their church services go or how their community meets up, or what their lives look like as part of their faith. Stephen Gobeil

For Mark, the most memorable part of the Mumbai trip was their visit to a home for terminally ill children.

“It was kind of a weird vibe,” he said. “It was pretty sombre at first and not a lot of smiles. But we kind of did our program and some kids enjoyed it, some kids weren’t really responsive.

“But then afterwards, we were allowed to play soccer with them for a while and it was cool seeing some of these kids just start to smile … not that it was anything we were doing, but it was just like we were people just to play a game with … Just to see something simple like soccer, (it) kind of changed the mood a little bit.”

After India, the travellers moved on to England and Germany, spending approximately one month in each (staying with church families in the former and in the church itself in the latter).

Their experience in each country often belied preconceived notions.

“The difference is in India, in terms of scheduling and time, it’s a lot more relaxed and it’s OK to show up for something really late and it’s a lot more just kind of (a) ‘We’ll figure it out as we go’ kind of mentality,” Mark said.

“Then in England, it was just so strict -- like, ‘We’re going to meet at precisely this time and plan something for precisely an hour and 15 minutes, and then we’re going to have a 45-minute lunch break’ … So it was interesting just to see how different this world can be.

“And then going to Germany … I guess I had stereotypes in my mind that Germany would be pretty strict in scheduling and maybe not as warm. But then when we got there, the people were really, really welcoming.”

During their stay in the German city of Hof, located near the Czech Republic, the Canadians enjoyed the tendency of locals to get out and do things as part of the wider community.

“There was always something going on,” Mark said. “People would always go to music events, people would always just go out into the streets more and visit with people. It was kind of different from Canada in that way.”

Since returning from Germany in April, the four have been engaged in a spring tour across Western Canada, playing music and talking about their experiences.

Following a Friday performance downtown at the Salvation Army and Saturday’s event at Alliance Church, the group was scheduled to stop by Sandy Lake on Monday and Muskoday First Nation on Wednesday.

Though being away from their friends and family for such a long time was difficult for the travellers, each could point to a positive experience resulting from the journey.

Shad pointed to a greater understanding of other cultures, while Mark highlighted the flexibility to adapt to different situations.

Meanwhile, Stephen and Jeremy emphasized the spiritual aspects of their journey.

“You get to see how Christianity can be in different cultures … not just how your church would go, but how their church services go or how their community meets up, or what their lives look like as part of their faith,” Stephen said.

Acknowledging occasional difficult or awkward moments, Jeremy noted, “There was a lot of personal growth, I’d say, from the trip -- just learning to trust God a lot more, and also just developing skills for planning and critical thinking, and a whole bunch of things like that just to make the trip work better.”

Organizations: Alliance Church, Prince Albert, YMCA Carlton Comprehensive Public High School Action Ventures Salvation Army

Geographic location: Germany, India, England Western Canada Saskatchewan Mumbai Nipawin Asia Africa Europe Hof Czech Republic Sandy Lake

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