Four days on a mission trip just 20 minutes from Southeast Christian Church’s Blankenbaker Campus  is changing how life looks for a group of junior high students.

During spring break, the students served at Refuge, a ministry in a South Louisville neighborhood that is home to refugees from scores of nations, including Bosnia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Cuba and East Africa. It’s where four different Christian churches meet on Sundays and eight ministries use space. Ministry continues through the week with ESL classes, conversational English classes, youth and children’s programs.  

The short-term mission trip opened students’ eyes to a world they never knew existed in Louisville.

It’s what Southeast Christian Church Middle School Pastors Jon McCallon, Matt McGuire and Brock O’Dell prayed would happen.

One night, students learned about the religious beliefs of many refugees who are Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu. They tried ethnic foods and went on a scavenger hunt at local international markets where fruits and vegetables were identified by country of origin.

They played what leaders called “hunger meals,” a planned scenario showing inequalities in food distribution. Some students were assigned to tables where trays overflowed with food while others were assigned to tables with half-eaten or stale food. As they moved through the game, students experienced some of what it is like to wish for more food and discussed how those with plenty can help those who have nothing.

One night, small groups of students went into the community for home visits. By far, that made the biggest impact.

Lee Anderson, a student at Crosby Middle School, was in a group that visited a family from Nepal. Though the matriarch of that family was in the hospital, her 16-year-old daughter prepared a Nepalese meal for everyone. Throughout the evening, friends “dropped by” to meet students.

“I was amazed that girl could cook a whole meal and that the most important thing in their world is relationships,” Anderson said. “They are happy just to be together.”

Nadia Miles said meeting refugees from Nepal was the highlight of her time at Refuge.  

“At first the children in the family seemed scared of us, but then we began to play and they settled in our laps and didn’t want to leave,” Miles said. “By the end of the evening, I didn’t want to leave either.”

It was the first time Lauren Mattingly heard about the suffering many refugees endure before coming to the United States. The family her group visited told them about decades of living in a refugee camp.

“In the camp, the whole family lived in a tiny room,” Mattingly said. “They had no money, but they weren’t allowed to get a job or leave the camp. Only 10 percent of the families in the camp make it out.”

Susan Anderson, a parent and mission trip veteran who served as a chaperone on the trip, said her first visit to Refuge left quite an impression.

 “It’s an awesome place,” she said. “We’ve all heard that we should go to the nations. We should do that, but we have the nations right here.”

One afternoon, students learned that missionaries do plenty of “grunt” work as they mopped floors, vacuumed carpets and moved furniture to help get the building ready for classes.

Cameron McKinney, a student at Christian Academy of Louisville, worked with a group of students who delivered 700 fliers through the Kingston Apartment complex next door to Refuge, inviting them to a neighborhood block party. About 60,000 refugees, speaking close to 175 different languages, call Louisville home.

Trent DeLoach, training director at Refuge, with founder Jonathan Braden, talked to the group of students about missions.

“A lot of churches hope people will come to them,” he said. “The essence of missions is that we will go to them.”