Columbia church members learn firsthand about poverty on trip to Heifer Ranch

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | 3:41 p.m. CDT; updated 9:50 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Olivia Heisner, left, a volunteer at Heifer Ranch, shows members of Trinity Presbyterian Church and Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church a Zambian hut during the tour of the global village in Perryville, Ark., on March 26, 2009.

COLUMBIA – It’s not often that Columbia citizens wake to the sound of a rooster crowing at 2:30 a.m.

But that was the case for seven members of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church and nine members of Trinity Presbyterian Church during their trip to Heifer Ranch near Perryville, Ark., in late March.


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The purpose of the trip was to allow participants to taste what life is like for citizens of poverty-stricken nations and regions, and to incite changes in their daily lives to help others. The group spent the beginning of the trip working on team-building skills before spending one night in a global village simulation of Third World poverty, experiencing the living conditions and struggles typical of those areas.

The experience at Heifer Ranch made the participants rethink their daily lives and come up with different ways to foster change, they said after returning home.

Heifer Ranch is part of Heifer International, an organization that works to end global poverty and hunger through gifts and training in sustainable farming practices. The global village portion of the ranch allows visitors to spend the night in various simulated regions on the globe. Because the group from Trinity and Wilkes Boulevard had 16 members, the members were divided into three groups and sent to three different simulations.

Linda Harlan, a participant from Trinity, spent a night in a hut in living conditions similar to what is typical of rural Thailand. She described the night as, “an experience like (I’ve) never had before.”

With resources scarce and split among the three different simulations, the 16 Columbians had to negotiate and decide how to make sure everyone got something to eat. The three subgroups spent some time arguing over how to share meager supplies of water, wood for burning, rice and vegetables. But in the end everyone decided to pool all the resources and to share dinner in Thailand.

"Everybody tried to make the best of it," Harlan said. "We didn't get stuffed, but we didn't go hungry either."

Harlan and four other trip participants spent the night after their dinner of rice and overcooked vegetables sleeping on the floor in bamboo huts that were elevated off the ground, which at least kept them dry during a night of heavy thunderstorms.

Jon Nevel, director of Christian education at Trinity, and his group were not as lucky. Nevel and a couple youth participants spent their night in a simulation of urban slums.

In the urban slums simulation, Nevel and others spent the night in a chicken wire shack that had four plywood walls and half a door, making for an interesting night in the rain.

“If it hadn’t been for a couple of painters’ tarps and some duct tape we would have been swimming all night,” Nevel said. "We realized this is how people live on a daily basis — struggling for food, shelter and warmth. We at least had sleeping bags and duct tape to help, they don't even have that."

The sound of the rain throughout the night worried Jill Sander, pastor of the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, and other participants who spent the night in the Guatemalan simulation. Their dwelling was the most permanent and was made of adobe brick walls and a tin roof; solar panels on the house were even available to provide a small amount of electricity for one room.

“We felt lucky and guilty about being in the Guatemala house since we were warm and dry,” Sander said.

When the rooster's crowing wouldn't stop, Harlan and the others had to begin their day just as native Thai people would — doing chores. The village had ducks and pigs that had to be cared for and a compost heap that had to be turned.

Very similar to the Thai village simulation, the third representation resembled a Guatemalan village. Participants were required to tend goats, among other chores.

Caring for the animals gave the Columbia visitors the opportunity to see firsthand the sustainability practices that Heifer International teaches. By keeping compost and collecting methane gas from the pigs, villages that receive aid from Heifer International are able to be more sustainable and more independent for the future.

In addition to inclement weather and unfamiliar chores, the participants were dealt “Life Cards” and “Crisis Cards,” which gave them a glimpse of the situations typically faced by people living in poverty-stricken regions of the world.

In Thailand, Harlan and her fellow participants had to make group decisions about trading resources for travel documents and resisting governmental seizure of their farm. After some discussion, Harlan and the rest decided to trade some of their precious resources for travel papers and to stay and peacefully resist the government’s desire to take their land.

Harlan realized that just reading the situations from a card differed from the actual lives the impoverished Thai people were leading. She said that she and the other participants came to understand that those situations were over once the decision was made, but that it wasn't a simulation for the real people who live out those circumstances every day..

“I thought about it that night going to sleep on the floor,” Harlan said. “A real family would have to worry at night. They don’t necessarily have the protection of their government."

The experience also opened the eyes of other participants. The Rev. Raymond Massey II said he realized how much he takes for granted in this modern world.

“When the sun went down, the lights went out because that’s the life,” said Massey. “At 9:30 I was out, there was no TV, no radio – just dark. We didn’t have cars or trucks; it was very simple, not complicated at all.”

For Sander, the trip put into perspective how unevenly the world’s resources are divided.  A map is painted on the floor at Heifer Ranch that shows how much spending power each continent has, along with a map showing population distribution.

“I realized just how much higher that spending power was for North America compared to other continents,” said Sander.

This trip strengthened former commitments for Sander, who had been to Heifer Ranch before. “I just keep telling myself  ‘Don’t get too lazy, Jill.’”

For Harlan, the change has been telling family and friends to donate to Heifer International instead of giving her birthday gifts. For Nevel, it’s been questioning himself and the world around him.

Two questions keep coming to Nevel's mind: “Is this what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to live? Or is there a better way I can change my daily life to make a difference?”

By bringing home the lessons from Heifer Ranch, the participants hope their congregations will become more passionate about continuing to help Heifer International and the work it does.

"I hope it will confirm in the congregation's mind what they've known all along," Massey said. "There are people who need help, and we need to help them."

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