PLIA 2020: a journey to remember

Tabetha DeGroot and Benjamin Boersma — Staff Writers

It started with French toast in our leader’s kitchen and ended with a cinnamon roll hug. We left the first Friday morning of spring break after breakfast and stopped at the Maurice City Park on our way out. Towards the back of the park is a tube slide that looks like it was built inside the tank of a water tower. One by one, the seven of us slid down and experienced the slide’s twists and turns.

“That was a good indication to me that we would have a great week,” said junior Isaac Porte, reflecting on the trip.

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Little did we know, however, that our trip would end with twists to rival the Maurice Slide. After stopping overnight in Western Nebraska, we traveled the windy roads into Colorado. Gideon Brandsma, one of our leaders, plugged in his phone before heading out. As the mountains rose before us, a familiar tune began to play.

“I can show you the world…”

Slowly, the music grew in excitement, and we crested a hill just as the big crescendo happened. Before us was the winding highway leading down into the valley below.

“A whole new world, A new fantastic point of view…”

We pulled up to Bethel CRC of Shiprock, New Mexico, as night fell upon the dusty desert town. We breathed in the dry air, excitement spreading through the van. It was crystal clear: we weren’t in Iowa anymore.

A Navajo woman was sweeping the entryway as we approached the door. We greeted her, and she explained that she was cleaning up after her daughter’s funeral. Death is a common occurrence on the Navaho reservation of Shiprock. There had been two funerals shortly before we arrived, and there was a third during the week we were there. Later in the week, some of us helped drywall for a member of the congregation. She explained to us that she had lost a granddaughter while on the way to the hospital. None of us were ready for how straightforward she was in telling us.

We found Pastor Jon Greydanus inside the church and he showed us around. We would sleep and eat in the church. Our only option for showering was at a nearby pool, which was closed when we arrived on Saturday night and would not open until Monday. This was our first lesson on how to “improvise, adapt, and overcome.” We became practiced in the art of sink bathing, dry shampoo, and deodorant wipes that week.

“I’m going to have to be okay with looking and feeling a bit greasier than usual,” freshman Grace Nanninga remarked.

For devotions that evening, one of us prayed that God would use the time to help us reorient our focus toward Him. A word of advice: be careful what you ask for. You might not like how He answers.

For most of the week, we cleaned up around the church, burned tumbleweeds, hauled tree branches and two-by-fours, and drywalled. When we weren’t working, we spent time getting to know our teammates and introducing ourselves to the local wildlife, such as dogs, peacocks, and lots of spiders.

On Wednesday we traveled into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon. It was overcast and foggy when we arrived. The rangers told us not to expect good visibility. We went in anyway, just in time for the fog to lift and a rainbow to appear several hundred feet below us. As the day continued and we hiked around the canyon, the sky cleared up. We saw at least seven more rainbows that day, as well as a sunset that turned the canyon walls from brown to flaming red before fading into the blackness of evening.

“God just can’t stop flexing,” said sophomore Sydney Stiemsma.

“Careful what you ask for,” someone else replied. “He’s more than happy to oblige.”

We returned to our work Thursday morning with the coronavirus on our minds. Rumors were beginning to reach us that classes might be cancelled when we returned. Those rumors were confirmed when we quit for the day. Almost half our group was from Canada, and they suddenly had to get home. They booked flights as fast as they could. The rest of us, except for two who lived in Sioux Center, would have to drive home.

Friday morning came very quickly. There was a storm brewing in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, so we decided to try going through a different pass in the Rockies. The trip went smoothly until just before the Nebraska border. As the sun set, the sleet finally caught up with us, and the roads began to ice over.

The truck ahead of us couldn’t make it up the hill and stopped to put on chains. We lost momentum and couldn’t get started. Vehicles flew over the hill, unable to slow down. A few of them barely missed our front bumper. We were scared.

Someone suggested that we say a prayer. It was there, on the side of the road just outside of Nebraska, that we experienced the most effective team building activity of the week. For a moment, the coronavirus and online classes were forgotten. It was just us and God in the middle of the storm.

Thankfully, there were no more surprises after that and we made it back to Sioux Center safe and sound. While we were in Shiprock, Stiemsma had taught us something called “the cinnamon roll hug.” Everyone joins hands and turns inwards until we’re all wrapped up like a cinnamon roll. With our feet safely back on familiar soil, we did our best cinnamon roll hug yet and said our sad goodbyes. Though it was hard to part, any journey that starts with French toast and ends in a cinnamon roll hug will not easily be forgotten.

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