How far does the Harbor of Hospitality extend? For some, the answer is more than 2,500 miles.
Thanks to area churches, Elizabeth City has forged an unexpected connection with Ecuador. Every year, local churches send groups and individuals to various cities in the South American country, creating a community on both ends that becomes bigger and more connected with every visit.
Every summer since 2002, Forest Park Church on Forest Park Road has sent a mission group to Guayaquil, the largest and most populous city in Ecuador. Participants vary in age and according to what mission work they perform. Jobs include working at medical clinics, school assemblies and construction sites.
Lana Neal helps lead the mission trip to Ecuador every year with her husband, Scott, the pastor at Forest Park. She said she’s seen the effects of the mission work not only in Ecuador, but within her own church.
“We’ve seen families get closer, we’ve seen lifelong friendships made,” she said. “We’ve seen kids meet their spouses on this trip and now they’re married. It’s been a great thing for Forest Park.”
Neal said the mission trips to Guayaquil have gone so well, church members plan to send a mission team to Peru this summer. They also hope to send groups to Ecuador, Peru and Botswana in 2015.
Other churches in Elizabeth City that have sent congregation members to Ecuador for mission work — some of whom have stayed for periods up to a year — include First United Methodist Church and Christ Episcopal Church.
Sophia Wojnowski, director of youth ministry at Christ Episcopal Church, says her four visits to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, have affected not just her religious life but her academic choices as well. For example, she elected to take Spanish courses in college so she could communicate with people she met in Quito.
Wojnowski said she doesn’t call her visits to Ecuador mission trips because what she’s learned and experienced while there doesn’t have an end.
“This is supposed to be an experience that will change your life and how you worship and how you carry out your life as a Christian,” she said.
Wojnowski added that Elizabeth City’s connection with Ecuador also gives local residents a perspective on small-town life, helping them see it’s not the only way to live.
For Julie Robinson, a member of the First Methodist United Church, going to Ecuador inspired her to give back to her own community.
“Once you have the feeling of serving others, even though you’re giving to others, you get more out of it than you give,” she said.
Robinson’s work in Ecuador has helped in her work as director of La Casa de San Felipe, an afterschool program for English language-learning students in Elizabeth City. She also works with her church’s homeless ministry, which hopes to open up a shelter soon.
Performing mission work and forging connections in Ecuador also benefits residents of Elizabeth City, Robinson said.
“We’ve had people ask, ‘Why don’t you do work here and not so far away?’ My answer is, when you get out of your comfort zone and see something completely different, it opens your eyes and gives you a passion for it,” she said.