This summer, on a swan-shaped boat in the middle of Amsterdam, two Wheaton students found themselves deep in conversation with Esha, a traveler from India. What had started as a discussion about Amsterdam’s red-light district turned into a conversation about how to find lasting love. As senior Joel Miller, one of the Wheaton students, explained how Jesus had personified love for him, he teared up. Esha had been given a Bible earlier in her journey — she told the students it couldn’t be coincidence that this was the second time she had heard about Jesus as she backpacked through Europe.
It wasn’t a coincidence. The Wheaton students knew God had orchestrated the meeting. After all, they were in Europe with the Youth Hostel Ministry specifically to seek out such conversations. Youth Hostel Ministry’s stated mission for the summer was to “minister to the traveling communities of Europe” and “embrace lives of service through hospitality, discipleship, and evangelism.”
Ever since Lee Howard started the program in 1971, the Youth Hostel Ministry has sent teams of Wheaton students to backpack through Europe and minister to the communities that surround youth hostels. This year, they sent out three teams — one of five students and two of four students — to travel through the Netherlands, Norway and Spain and stay in the hostels scattered through some of their main cities. The conversation on the swan-boat was just one of many conversations about Jesus the teams had over the summer.
The teams who went on this year’s trip brought back fun memories — one team got locked in a train, another accidentally broke an antique tree. But senior Hannah Doan, this year’s chair, made it clear that the Youth Hostel Ministry is more than just a way to travel Europe and have fun. Before setting foot in Europe, the students spent the spring semester in an in-depth training. They attended seminars that ranged from self-defense techniques to understanding European culture. They also practiced methods for effectively sharing the gospel.
“I think that that’s something in general that’s a need among students — to know how to articulate their faith and how to articulate the gospel,” Doan explained. It’s why these students did exercises such as writing out their testimonies, circling all the “Christianese” words, and then crafting those testimonies to be understandable to those who did not grow up in a Christian environment.
The biggest learning curve came when the students put their training into practice during “Plunge Weekend,” a weekend in which they ventured out to youth hostels in Chicago to simulate as closely as possible what they would experience over the summer.
According to Miller, the training not only equipped the students with practical skills, but gave them an opportunity to become close-knit. He explained that not only was it comforting to travel with a group of people ready to support each other whenever necessary, but the assortment of majors, personalities and backgrounds within each team gave them even more opportunities to connect with their fellow backpackers.
While some members of the team shared their personal experiences with their fellow travelers, others drew from their knowledge of philosophy or political science to initiate deep conversations. Junior Paul Green, a political science major, described how God utilized their different backgrounds. “Whether it was connecting with a Brazilian girl over the political instability [in her country], or discussing political philosophy with an Albanian university student, I saw how God can and will use anything to point back to Him,” Green said.
As the teams traveled through Europe and shared the gospel, junior Abi Conway discovered that her understanding of evangelism shifted as the summer progressed. As the child of missionary parents, Conway grew up surrounded by “evangelism.” She was used to thinking of it in terms of numbers and “successes.” But the story from the summer that Conway finds herself telling focuses on one young woman from Germany. After they met in a hostel, Conway and the woman bonded over their mutual love of camping. So they pulled out a map, picked a random spot and headed out to camp. That night, as they stayed up late talking about the meaning of life, Conway shared her experience with Jesus and listened to the other woman’s story. Though the woman did not accept Jesus that weekend, she and Conway built a relationship that has lasted past the end of summer. For Conway, the definition of evangelism has shifted from numbers to relationships and from seeing projects to loving people.
Other students told similar stories about building lasting friendships — many are still in contact with people they met. In fact, if Doan could go back and rewrite this year’s mission statement, she would add a line about the importance of building lasting relationships and communities. This summer, Doan met up with friends she made when she joined the Youth Hostel Ministry her freshman year and she plans to meet up with some of her new friends from this year over Christmas break. Doan describes the evangelism she saw this summer in terms of hospitality. As the teams extended hospitality to their fellow backpackers, whether through cooking a meal or hosting a game night, they invited people into a community that demonstrates God’s love and opened the door for deeper conversations. “I saw and felt the way that the Lord is constantly inviting people to experience Him and to see Him,” Doan said.
Of course, not every moment of the trip was spent in deep and fulfilling conversations or community. There were times of exhaustion and discouragement. For junior Anna Horton, the hardest moment of her trip was also the most memorable. Worried about events back home and tired from traveling, Horton struggled to answer when one of the guests in the hostel asked why she was spending her summer in Europe. As their conversation progressed, she discovered that the man had walked away from his own faith after 10 years of ministry. “In my attempt to encourage him, I just realized that I didn’t have anything to offer him,” Horton said. In that moment she discovered just how much she had to rely on God. “That’s probably the baseline of everything I learned this summer,” Horton concluded. “To trust in [God’s] promises that He will sustain us and that He has called us to a life greater than anything we can ask for or imagine.”
In Doan’s case, trusting God meant realizing that the teams might never see the end results of their ministry. “We were just one piece in the puzzle in someone’s general spiritual identity,” she explained. “[God] had really been bringing each of these people to Himself over a lifetime. . .[it] was just encouraging to see that we could be one step, maybe, to bring someone closer to the Lord.”
To illustrate her point, Doan told a story about one of her most memorable conversations. In Budapest, Doan and another team member had stayed behind as the others in the hostel left to find a place to party. Only one backpacker, Kevin, stayed behind. Though they had laughed and joked with Kevin all week, he had never seemed interested in having deeper conversations. But that night, Kevin opened up, sharing his background in the Catholic church and explaining why he had left it behind. Kevin’s doubts just happened to echo the questions Doan and her travel partner had struggled with all summer. Doan could see how every moment of love and hospitality they had given Kevin, though it seemed insignificant at the time, led to this conversation. Doan found that, “No opportunity is wasted, no time that we spent in genuine care and love, even if we never directly shared the gospel.”
As they return back to America and the summer comes to an end, the students plan to continue sharing how God is working in their lives day-to-day. “Sharing the gospel is scary,” Miller explained, “But it’s not difficult. It happens naturally if you’re following Jesus. . . you get to share about that.” After all, “[God] does all the work,” as Green said, “and all he requires of us is to say yes to whatever he asks.”