Serving others in the name of Jesus Christ is a priority for Chris Swanson, Genesee County Undersheriff and father of two. He had never thought about going on a mission trip until he was invited to a barbecue by his friend, Mark Wood, Vice President of D & W Windows in Davison. Mark had gone on many mission trips and was recruiting others to get involved. “He did a 15-minute ambush on me!” laughs Chris. “At first I declined, but the next thing I knew, I’m heading to Haiti!” This was just the first of five mission trips for the undersheriff.
Chris and his son, Riley, have taken four trips together: to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Chile. Every member of the Swanson family has been on a mission trip with the exception of the youngest, Jordan, who will have his first experience in Honduras this July.
In June 2013, Chris traveled to Haiti with a group of volunteers to work on a building project for a church in Haiti with CWE Missions, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to missionaries and national pastors around the world through the construction of facilities (churches, medical clinics and educational institutions) to accommodate the preaching the Gospel of Jesus.
Volunteers commit to serve for seven days. They not only help build a structure from the ground up, they forge lifelong relationships with each other. “The first time I went, I was a little tense because I didn’t know what to expect,” Chris says. “You live in harsh conditions for a week.” His group stayed in a cement brick compound with flying insects and ants everywhere. “People burn their garbage in Haiti, so there was always the smell of garbage and we could always hear barking dogs and gun shots,” he describes.
The mission group worked during the first week of a four-week project to lay 3,500 cinder blocks by hand. The weather was very hot and humid and Chris remembers drinking 28 bottles of water in one day on one of his trips. While in the Dominican Republic, he had to take salt pills because of the extreme heat.
Adhering to a strict schedule, the volunteers work all day, have dinner at 5:30pm, Bible study at 7pm, and bedtime at 8:30.”You’re ready to go to bed; you’re tired,” Chris admits. After working four days, the volunteers were treated to a tour of the beautiful countryside. On their first day, they attended a praise and worship service, which lasted for three hours. As they prepared for the trip home, many group members left their clothes, shoes and belongings behind for the people of Haiti. “We love them and want to help them,” Chris explains. For him, this was also a time for reflection.” Everyone should take a mission trip to realize how blessed we are in this country,” he says. “Haiti has amazing people who have a spirit of never quitting.”
At just 14 years old, Riley Swanson went on his first mission with his dad during the summer before his freshman year of high school. “My dad told me we were going on a trip,” Riley shares. He really didn’t have any expectations, but he trusted his dad. All he knew was that Haiti had been struck by an earthquake. “But I didn’t did realize how devastated it really was until I got there,” he adds. He worked side-by-side with his dad and the other adults. “I couldn’t do it as quickly as they did,” he says, “but I did my best to keep up with them. The leaders told us what to do, and we listened.” There were only three people in the group who were professional builders or masons; the rest of the volunteers were students, teachers, and other friends.
Riley remembers being very tired after the first day. “It takes everything out of you – 90-degree heat, all day, every day.” He remembers a family living in a small house near the compound who were the caretakers. The two young kids played soccer using a pop can for a ball. Coincidentally, Riley had brought a soccer ball with him on the trip. “I gave them my soccer ball when I left,” he says.
What made a big impression on Riley was how joyful the Haitian people were despite their harsh living conditions. “It blew my mind to see how thankful they were for what they had,” says the young volunteer. “I was sad to leave the people; I wanted to help them so much.”
Riley went on three more mission trips with his dad: the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Chile. “But it was the first one to Haiti that had the biggest impact on me,” he shares. “I learned to appreciate the littlest things in life. We take it all for granted.”
In July, Chris, Riley and Jordan will go to Honduras to build a church with CWE. “I’m so excited my brother is going!” Riley exclaims. “I get to see his reaction and I can say to him, ‘that is what I felt, too.’”
The mission experience has helped Riley decide what he wants to do in the future. Now 18, he will graduate from Genesee Christian high school this year and plans to study dentistry. “It created a desire in me to help people around the world,” he admits. “That is why I chose my career path to become a dentist. I’ve made it a goal to do one mission trip every year, and as a dentist, I’ll be able to go on medical missions.”
Riley says that the best part of the experience is the opportunity to bond with his dad. “He has the mindset and determination I strive to emulate in my own life,” Riley shares.
“The best thing for me has been watching the spiritual growth of my son right before my eyes,” says Chris. “He left for the trip a boy, and came back a man.”
“Everyone should take a mission trip to realize how blessed we are in this country.”
Photography by Eric Dutro & Photos provided by Jamie Swanson