Missionary touches teens' lives through World Changers projects

DALLAS (BP)--As a former vice president in the banking industry, Walter Mickels knows the value of a good investment. For the past four years his investments in the lives of young people participating in the North American Mission Board's World Changers program have been yielding eternal dividends.

Mickels is a national missionary with the North American Mission Board who coordinates World Changers projects throughout the United States and Canada. He retired after 27 years in the banking industry in 1996 and began serving fulltime with NAMB two years later.

Mickels and his wife, Sharon, were among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured during the March 2-9 Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches across the country.

World Changers unites the heart and hand in Christian action by rehabilitating substandard housing, but the goal of the program is to develop middle school, high school and college student participants into "lifestyle missionaries for a lifetime," Mickels said.

"Our primary philosophy at World Changers is to change the world of the participant. Our goal is to expose students to missions in the hope that God will take them, prick their hearts and then draw them to a higher calling in the realm of missions," he said.

Mickels himself learned the value of the World Changers program in 1991 when he was invited by a friend to participate in a renovation project in Weslaco, Texas, on the Mexican border. The work awakened an interest in and commitment to missions, he said.

Today, Mickels hopes to promote the same feeling among those who participate in World Changers.

"I am convinced that many students are not 'on mission' because we have not taught them to be on mission. ... Once we expose them to it and they experience the benefit of giving of themselves, then God begins to call those students out to a higher level of commitment to missions," he said.

Mickels' service with World Changers takes him to cities around the country where he coordinates the food, lodging and material needs for project volunteers, and where he works with Baptist associations to enlist volunteers.

Mickels also works to develop relationships with city officials, some of whom are initially hesitant to accept assistance from a Christian charity. Most, however, welcome the volunteer labor and identify low-income homes in need of repair.

Those who benefit from the World Changers projects are amazed that young people from other states would devote time to renovate their homes, Mickels said. Property owners find in the volunteers a giving spirit.

"On many occasions people will ask us why we are repairing this home or what we're doing in the neighborhood," he said. "As the week progresses and as they see those students working and making a difference on their house, then the people begin to open up. They sit and talk with us, tell their neighbors about us and even cook for us sometimes."

Mickels recalled a World Changers project in Pine Bluff, Ark., where the renovation of an elderly man's house prompted a neighbor to open both her heart and her wallet.

"We were working on a gentleman's house, and it was in such poor condition. Some of the other senior citizens in the neighborhood had done their best to try and keep it up but couldn't. One neighbor had such appreciation for what we were doing ... that she went back home and got her checkbook," Mickels said.

The $100 check was sent to a local church's mission fund. "If we hadn't accepted it," Mickels said, "we would have robbed her of a blessing."

World Changers projects among Native American communities also are vivid in Mickels' memory. Student volunteers have renovated homes on the Catawba reservation near Rockhill, S.C., and on the Cherokee nation reservation near Stillwell, Okla., where many follow traditional Native American religions.

"In most of the places we go there is already some witness. But for years World Changers has been the only Christian witness on the Catawba reservation. We have worked hard there, and this next year we are going to be building a Baptist church on the reservation," Mickels said.

Mickels worked with the Cherokee nation housing authority in Oklahoma to determine which homes would be renovated.

"When we got into the community and worked on people's houses at no cost, then they began to question what it is that makes us do this. This is an opportunity for us to get our students in to work with a group that is most often not open to the gospel."

Sharing the gospel through World Changers is a responsibility that his wife, Sharon, likewise takes seriously. While she is not involved directly in project leadership, she said volunteering at the work sites has strengthened her commitment to missions.

"I went on a trip to Louisiana several years ago and watched to see what was going on during the projects. I thought, 'I've been missing all of this.' Our schedules are different, but every chance I get, I go," Sharon said.

"Sharon and I are getting more and more requests to go to different churches and speak about World Changers. We ask that Southern Baptists pray for us as we travel and ask that God will go before us in the cities where we will work, that the Holy Spirit will move in the lives of the people," Mickels said.

While Baptist state conventions in Alabama, Florida and North Carolina sponsored 20 projects this past summer, most World Changers projects in cities around the country were sponsored by NAMB. Mickels coordinated projects in Iowa, Wyoming, Texas, Colorado, Louisiana and Indiana last summer.

Of the nearly 100 World Changers projects scheduled for 2003, Mickels will coordinate three projects in Texas, four in Wyoming, one in New York, two in Missouri and five in Canada. No matter whether the projects take place in the United States or Canada, he said the goal remains the same.

"We want to develop lifestyle missionaries. We want to develop missionaries who, even though they go to an office every day or they go to a job every day, they still see themselves as being on mission. We want them to make the commitment of doing that several times a year on short-term mission trips. If God calls them to fulltime vocational service, that is great."

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(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: GUIDING HAND, NETWORKING and PREPARING.

The Big Picture:

-- Walter Mickels is one of three national missionaries who assist North American Mission Board staff in coordinating World Changers projects.

-- During the summer of 2002 a total of 23,083 participants working on 1,701 work sites in 87 projects in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

-- World Changers has a dual goal of ministering and sharing the gospel with others and helping participants grow in their personal commitment to Christ. During last year's projects, 1,345 professions of faith were recorded and 544 students made commitments to vocational ministry or missions.

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