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Everyone Survived: REACH Alumni Look Back at the First Year of REACH

The first REACH training: (left to right) Mim Musser, Chad Miller, Jayne, Steve Mast,
David Maundu, Grant Price, Darlene, Enos Schwartz, John Shrock, Davy Slabaugh,
Carl Bontrager, Darrell Eberly, Paul Kurtz, Eugene Kraybill

By Andrew Sharp
From the August 2013 Beacon

Paul Kurtz never said anything about digging graves when he recruited them for REACH. But here they were in Israel, spading up shovelfuls of the Promised Land to provide a final resting place for Russian immigrants.

“We learned to be flexible and roll with the punches,” Davy Slabaugh said. Davy was part of one of the first REACH teams in 1992; his team went to Israel and another team went to Kenya.

Hundreds of young people have gone through RMM’s short-term missions program since it started more than 20 years ago, serving in dozens of countries from Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. And the program has a good number of “grandchildren”—although dating in the program is prohibited, marrying afterward is not, and a statistically significant number of participants have done just that.

A lot has changed since those early days—more teams are going to more countries, and the training is in Columbus, not Cincinnati, Ohio. Teams can now Skype back to the U.S. for guidance and counsel, or if they want to be old-fashioned, send an email. In 1992, then-director Paul Kurtz said he communicated with the overseas outreach coordinators exclusively by fax and long-distance phone calls. “That it actually worked is a miracle as I look at it now,” he said. Another big change is that REACH is no longer a joint program run by both Rosedale Bible College and RMM; after several years RMM assumed responsibility for the entire program.

I caught up with a number of participants from that first year of REACH to see where they are now and get some of their memories from their time in the program: Eugene Kraybill, Grant Price, Chad Miller, Carl Bontrager, Davy Slabaugh, Jayne (who asked that I omit her last name because of the nature of the outreach work she is doing) and Darlene (who asked that I omit her entire name because of her work in a sensitive location).

“It was the first year and rough around the edges, but God worked through the experiences and circumstances in which we found ourselves,” Davy said.

Developing flexibility was a big part of both outreaches. The Israel team got their surprising grave-digging assignment through their work with a youth hostel run by Anglicans in Tel Aviv, Davy said. The church owned and operated a cemetery, and the hostel volunteers were responsible for its upkeep. “They often had trouble getting their normal volunteers to go work at the graveyard and thus it fell to the REACH team who were new and willing to do anything,” he said. In addition to grave digging, they did gardening, maintenance, and assisted with burials.

One disturbing part of this activity was that the cemetery was more than 100 years old, and some of the graves were unmarked. “We never knew when we started digging a grave when we might come down on an old one. This was a bit disconcerting the first couple of times, but we became accustomed to gathering up the bones and reburying them elsewhere,” Davy said. “The most memorable day was the one where three of us woke up at 5 and dug three graves before breakfast … then after breakfast, we headed back to the graveyard and performed two burials and a gravestone dedication, all before lunch.”

For their part the Kenya team, as was the habit of short-term missions teams, had planned to travel around singing, doing drama, and speaking about the gospel, team leader Eugene Kraybill said. But when they got there, they were put to work digging a foundation with pickaxes for an office complex for the church there. The yawning gap between expectations and reality, plus all the other cultural differences one can expect in another country, led to some real frustration and tension. They eventually got to do some singing and speaking, but Eugene said as team leader he should have been willing for the team to serve the African church in whatever way they could. He realized from the experience that overseas work involves a lot of important cross-cultural dynamics, and said they left the outreach on good terms with the church.

Culture differences came into play even in Cincinnati, where the teams trained. One of the participants, David Maundu, was from Kenya. Davy remembered “walking hand in hand with (David) … through downtown Cincinnati while trying to explain that two men holding hands in North America as they walk down the street has different cultural connotations than it does in Kenya.”

The REACHers also had to learn how to share their faith, both in the U.S. and overseas, a process that could be clumsy at times. Eugene said they used to walk the streets and encourage people to “try Jesus.” He didn’t understand at the time the magnitude of what he was asking them to do—to switch faiths, or to adopt a new deity. As someone raised in a Christian culture, he had an unchallenged confidence in his beliefs without a corresponding understanding of what people raised outside a Christian culture would have to go through if they decided to follow Jesus.

The Creation of REACH

RMM’s once-flourishing Voluntary Service program was declining in 1992; the overseas program had been intentionally scaled back and interest was waning in stateside positions, according to Paul Kurtz, Vice President of New Initiatives at RMM. Paul served as the first director for the REACH program and was assisted by Mim Musser, RMM’s current HR director.

Richard Showalter, president across the lawn at RBC (then RBI), had just returned from missions work overseas and spoke highly of YWAM (Youth With A Mission) short-term teams that had been working in the region. RMM and RBC formed a coordinating council to create a similar short-term program. The idea, Paul said, was that RBC would be responsible for the education and training side, and RMM would take care of sending the teams overseas.

Paul was hired as campus pastor at RBI, and worked as REACH director for several years. Both the RBC and RMM boards voted to continue the program after the first year, which was a good thing, because Paul and his wife Grace had already sold their house in Indiana and moved their family, including newborn twins, to Rosedale. Paul admitted to some nervousness about the boards’ decision.

As the program grew larger, leaders at RBC and RMM decided the program needed to be the responsibility of one agency, so in 1996 RMM took on the entire program and brought Paul on as the short-term program director.

Paul said in the years after REACH started, he would hear from people that REACH had killed the VS program. He said REACH certainly played a role in the process, but VS would have ended anyway at some point. “The reality was VS was declining, it was dying … I think it was just the death knell.”

“We (REACH program leaders) knew we were doing something very innovative… something very different that as we talked to young people was resonating with them in our conference,” he said.

Davy remembered passing out tracts at a Madonna concert in Tel Aviv, “while wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ in bold Hebrew lettering. In retrospect it is somewhat surprising that we survived the night.” A local Cincinnati TV station was sufficiently intrigued with REACH training activities that they got Eugene to wear a hidden microphone when the group went to the city’s red light district and talked to some of the prostitutes. They were featured on a news segment called “Mennonites on Mean Street,” Darlene remembered.

Carl Bontrager remembered an incident on outreach when sharing with fellow believers made a difference. He was speaking at a meeting in Kenya and sensed the Holy Spirit leading him in what to share, and helping him as he spoke. It went really well, he said, and one of the men who was there made changes in his life as a result. That same man later took the team on a trip to a game preserve. “The night we got back, he got sick and died,” Carl said, adding he was glad to have played a part in helping the man be prepared before his death.

REACHers got plenty of opportunities for increasing faith through challenging circumstances. Eugene said they didn’t get their plane tickets to Kenya until 45 minutes before the plane took off. That was uncomfortably close, but more disturbingly the travel agent didn’t give them their return tickets but assured them she would mail them. The tickets did not arrive during the entire outreach, and the day they left Kenya, as they sat in the vehicle waiting to go to the airport, they still did not have them. Then a secretary checked and discovered the tickets in a package on a desk and brought them out.

“Looking back I believe a practical lesson I learned was that God honors the simple faith of his people … I remember some frustrating … some sorrowful times in Thika, Kenya, but also some joyful, wonderful and exhilarating times,” Grant Price said. “I will never forget the impact it had on me. Faith, faith, faith—not saving faith, but a trusting faith that God will do what he promised and often more than we can think or ask. This is what programs like this are good for; they remove you from your comfort zone till all you have to rely on is faith that God will do what he has promised.”

Many of the REACHers talked about understanding and applying their faith better. Jayne said the impact of the program was “Life-changing values. It changed my outlook on material things, on how to live life daily seeking to be in step with the Holy Spirit, rather than what the world values. I began to step out with small steps, learning how to share Jesus with others.”

“(REACH) helped me focus on God and bring focus and clarity to where God was leading me,” Davy said. “My time in REACH was foundational in the development of my worldview and my approach to life. Choices of where to live, jobs to take, jobs to decline, how to spend money have all been impacted by the foundations laid in the REACH program.”

Eugene said, “I felt like (the teachings) really integrated more in understanding of spiritual warfare, the father heart of God, understanding the power of the Holy Spirit, of fruits of the spirit and how to incorporate that into our daily life, and the importance of prayer and intercession. I appreciated the worship times that Paul Kurtz would lead and I still remember the song very well ‘Refiner’s Fire,’ which was a theme song.”

“I learned to pay attention to God speaking to me in my spirit. The teaching on (the) father heart of God was also so powerful,” Darlene said. She also said REACH helped her find her calling. “It was one more step in molding me into the person (God) wants me to be.”

Chad Miller said REACH helped him develop leadership gifts, played a significant role in solidifying his call to pastoral ministry, shaped his view of God’s work in the world and helped give him a heart for world missions. He developed deep friendships, learning to be open his faith and what God was doing in his life. “The grace and honesty I experienced … has given me hope to not be overwhelmed by my own brokenness,” he said. Davy talked about gaining a broader perspective. Worshipping with evangelical Anglicans in

Israel helped him realize “that just maybe the kingdom of God was a little broader than I had ever understood.” He also remembered “sharing a meal with an Israeli Arab family of believers and getting firsthand a perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I had never heard before.”

There were good times and difficult times. One event that most of the Kenya team remembered was Jayne getting her foot run over by a matatu (a public transportation van). Her foot was split open, and she got 22 stitches, she said. A week later, she had to go back to the hospital with an infection in the wound, then had to go to another hospital to get stitched up again.

On a more lighthearted note (for everyone but Paul Kurtz), Davy said he remembered Paul “leaping up from the lunch table at the Peace House (the VS unit where they trained) and chasing his car down the street as the tow truck slowly pulled it away.” Despite his hearty efforts, Paul recalled that the tow truck got away with his car.

Where They Are Now

Chad Miller went to Providence College in Manitoba, then to Prairie Graduate School in Alberta. He completed seminary training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and then took a youth pastor position at Hartville Mennonite Church in Hartville, Ohio, where he worked for nine years. He and his wife June currently live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he serves as an associate pastor at Foothills Mennonite Church, “a vibrant urban congregation” in a city with a diverse mix of ethnic groups. They have two children, Mackenzie and Hudson. Chad is part of a task force working to shape vision for Mennonite Church Canada.

Carl Bontrager led another REACH team to Belarus. He went back to Belarus for 13 months doing construction work with Logos International, then came back to the U.S. He married his wife Abby in 2001. They live in Goshen, Indiana and have five children—Daniel, Hannah, Lydia, Rhoda, and Stephen, ranging in age from 2 to 10. They ran a laundromat business for a number of years, and now Carl is employed at a machine shop that produces parts used in auto manufacturing.

Jayne went to Rosedale Bible Institute for two years and continued on in international ministry, going on several mission trips to Kenya, Ecuador, and Indonesia. In 2003, she graduated from Goshen College with a bachelor’s in education and a minor in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). Since she loved languages and was able to learn them, she went through two years of linguistics, translation and literacy training with Wycliffe B.ible Translators. She has become very involved with refugees and international students in the U.S. A connection with East African immigrants brought her to Columbus, Ohio to work with a large population of an unreached people group that has moved to the American Midwest. She does tutoring, visits homes, and shares Bible stories.

Eugene Kraybill and his wife Christina live in Berryville, Virginia, where Eugene is an airline pilot and Christina has a fair-trade gift shop (myneighborandme.com). He and Christina have both studied at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and are voluntary chaplains at Washington Dulles International Airport. He enjoys having conversations with people about faith issues. Eugene said he and his fellow airline coworkers are not able to attend many Sunday services, so they have prayer time throughout the day in the workplace to encourage one another and pray for each other.

Davy Slabaugh went on REACH again in 1993, where he met his wife Collette (they were married in 1998). He spent two years in Jordan as a missionary intern, studying Arabic, and returned to the U.S. to get a degree in International Business. During that time, he served with RMM as SEND House director, REACH program director, and SEND Department director, for a total of nine years. Davy and Collette have four children ages 8-13: Alinea, Connor, Chadwick, and Sabrina. They live in Hilliard, Ohio. Davy works as a database administrator and serves as an associate pastor at Agape Community Fellowship.

Darlene attended RBI for two terms after REACH. She and her husband “Ben” were married in 1993. They have served as long-term workers in South Asia for 18 years, where they live in a city of more than a million people. Darlene described it as “extremely crowded and chaotic, with long power cuts and mind-numbing poverty.” They have one son, age 14. Darlene has used her nursing training there, and she and Ben work on a variety of projects including helping set up and promote microenterprise businesses for widows. They are working to plant churches and help them grow among a largely unreached people group.

Grant Price and his wife Diane were married in 1994. They live in Pennsburg, a town in eastern Pennsylvania, where they own an apartment. Grant is a self-employed truck driver who has logged almost two million miles on the road. Diane does in-home care. They currently attend Frederick Mennonite Church. “REACH was a long time ago; however, mission and ministry continue to be more what we are than where we go,” Grant said.

David Maundu emailed us an update shortly after the article was published. Click here to read his comments

If they had it to do over, would they do REACH again? “Definitely,” Chad said. “Absolutely,” Davy said. “Yes,” Jayne said. “The next time, I would be more careful not to get hit by a matatu.”