An army of high school students wielding hammers, crowbars, saws and other no-nonsense tools could be spotted intermittently throughout the community this past week, scattered across worksites in Palestine, Elkhart and Slocum.
For five sunny days, 11 teams of 50 servant-hearted students were off to work by 8:30 a.m. to toil and sweat building ramps, pouring cement, drilling boards, painting houses and other general construction-repair assignments — and all, not for as much as one red penny.
Their reason? Just “wanting to help,” many said, as well as “to share the light of Christ,” according to Jeff Sparks, youth director at Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tyler.
The students had come as the "United Methodist Army" (United Methodist Action Reach-Out Mission by Youth) commonly referred to as "U.M. ARMY,” a summer mission-camp movement that has spread through communities across Texas, as well as northeastern states, with plans to expand across the nation.
According to the U.M. ARMY website, camps began in 1979, when 36 youth and adults from Houston area churches were gearing up to go on a mission trip to Tennessee. However, instead of leaping far on the out-of-state project, they decided to change directions, save the money they would have used on travel and spend it on needs near home — hence, the first U.M. ARMY camp.
By 1998, 24 camps hosting 2,500 servant-hearted leaders to extend helping hands to needs present in their surrounding communities.
Sparks said that today, about 2,000 students go through the Texas program, making up 50 camps spread over 10 weeks and involving students from area churches.
“This week alone, there's 10 camps going on in Texas,” he said, adding that this year's theme is “Light Bearer — to go shed Christ's light in your community.”
Accordingly, the camp lighting up Palestine this week included 80 participants of both students and adult leaders from Dayspring United Methodist Church in Tyler and the First United Methodist Churches of Lufkin, Livingston and Ore City, respectively.