First Presbyterian youth mission trip continues tradition of community service

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By Gloria Stravelli

METUCHEN – A caravan of vans and trucks departed the First Presbyterian Church
on July 25 for a youth mission trip to Roanoke, Va., continuing a decades-long
tradition of community service for youth and adult members of the congregation.

“A legacy of 30 years is hard to fathom for anything church related. Programs ebb
and flow, ministries grow and wither, but something that has existed vibrantly for
30 years? Well, that is something special,” the Rev. Justin Karmann wrote in his Pastor’s
Peace message that was posted on the church’s Facebook page prior to departure.

Karmann is the associate pastor of youth, young adults and missions.

The 30th youth mission trip is a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Roanoke, Va. The outreach was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Karmann explained in an interview.

“This is a high school trip, it was supposed to be 30 years last year, but it didn’t take
place because of COVID-19,” he said. “So this year is this is our 10th year to Roanoke
and they are designing a special T-shirt for us, so we are very excited,” he said.

“What we are grateful for is they always have work and for a group our size it is really
hard to find work for, like in 2019 we brought 89 people … So they prepare all year
for us and they can accommodate us and they want us. It’s a relationship we have
formed. The contractors remember some of the youths’ names, which is a really cool

“We bring a large box truck with everything. It takes us an entire year to start
planning this trip. So, we will take a month off in August and we will start planning the
next one.

“We want to support Habitat,” Karmann said, “because they are in that community and we want to just lift them up and continue the work they do.”

The group includes young men and women ranging from rising freshmen through high school seniors, along with adult chaperones, many of whom had been youth volunteers themselves.

“These are all high school youths local to Metuchen and Edison … we are bringing 40
young people and 17 adults. For our youth it’s a legacy thing, they love it. It’s an honor for them to go the whole five years and it’s the highlight of their year,” Karmann said.

“In terms of the adults, they are either parents who love the trip or they are former
youths who are now adults and love what the trip was for them and they want to
give back and have a leadership role.

“Then I have a bunch of younger adults who have just grown up having this trip change
their lives and now they want to take a different role.”

Over the past decades the mission trips, which also include adult mission trips, have
ranged geographically, he said.

“They have been all over the East Coast from Ohio to Kentucky to New Hampshire
and they are mostly done with Habitat. We arrive Sunday afternoon and we build for
five days, Monday through Friday.

“Roanoke is a delightful town, it’s a blue-collar town with a white-collar industry.
And it has also become quite the refugee, immigrant resettlement,” Karmann
said. “Habitat will build a house for anyone who meets the requirements and I’m
finding a lot of the houses we build are for immigrants. It’s their first home and we
get to work alongside the families and that’s a very cool thing.”

“We will be working on four sites, these are all homes. Some of them are foundation
up, some of them are rehabs, some are doing siding and trim work. It depends
where they are at in the process.”

The impact on the volunteers is profound, he said.

“I think the first thing is the sense of community, you are doing something bigger
than yourself with others and you have to rely on others and trust one another,”
Karmann said.

“Another sense is you are outside your bubble. The area we live in is a little insular …
and so it’s an opportunity to see a different part of the country and you have an
opportunity to experience a different culture and values. I think it always gives you
a sense of appreciation for what you have, but also what you are experiencing
among these other people,” he added.

“So, it’s just a perspective change and I always want to be careful to not
overemphasize that lots of the people we are serving are the underserved, because …
we come from a more affluent community and we are helping the poor.

“The really cool thing is watching our youth, especially those who start in eighth
grade and they work all five years, watching their skills develop. They don’t even
know how to swing a hammer the first year and by their senior year I watch them
become leaders.

“I tell this story a lot, one of my favorite highlights of ministry was we had a youth
who was leading framing a roof and I let him lead it with five others and I came back
and they had made a lot of mistakes and I said, ‘You have to redo it.’

“And I watched the young man look at the work, and I knew it wasn’t his fault, and
he said, ‘You know what, this is on me Justin, this is my fault.’

“And that is leadership and you can’t fabricate that. It has to be created naturally.
That was a highlight for me.”

“That is the value of our youth group,” he said. “It is one of the largest in the area and
our unofficial slogan is, ‘We’re building better humans.’ ”

Those who take part in the mission trips are deeply impacted, Karmann said.

“People feel selfish, I always feel selfish for doing this,” he said. “You are tapping into
a thread of humanity and loving others, being, again, a part of something bigger than
yourself. It touches your soul.”