Teenagers, Service, and Transformation
The Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions
You could say it was a coincidence. But David Lopez remembers thinking it was a sign.
“It was 1996. I was sitting in church, not really paying attention to the sermon. And I had been given an Insight magazine at Sabbath school,” explains Lopez. “I was reading about the Ultimate Workout and how it was a project where you could connect with Christ and have a life-changing experience.”
The Ultimate Workout is a special mission trip, coordinated by Maranatha Volunteers International, exclusively for high school teenagers. Lopez was only 14 years old, but he had already been thinking about missions.
“I’d heard stories and seen pictures from my grandparents,” says Lopez. “They devoted their lives to missions, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to do that. I was really scared at that age. What does it mean to surrender to God—to give it all?”
That year’s trip was to Panama. It was the country Lopez had heard much about, for his father was born there. But not only was the Ultimate Workout in Panama—the project was going to be based in a city called David.
David, Panama! Was it a location, or a calling?
As he tells the story of that fateful Sabbath, Lopez is sitting in his office at Maranatha Volunteers International, in Roseville, California, where he is the director of volunteer projects. On his desk is a photo of his wife, whom he met on an Ultimate Workout. He’s got a lot of work to catch up on; it’s his second day back at work after weeks of being gone to the Dominican Republic, where he just finished leading his first Ultimate Workout for Maranatha. Nineteen years after that first mission trip, his life is missions.
“It was a sign,” says Lopez, with a smile.
Exercise for the Soul
The origin story for Ultimate Workout begins in the late 1980s. Chris Blake, then editor of the youth magazine Insight, was at the gym with a friend. The exercise craze was in full swing at the time, and the trend got Blake thinking.
“I was running—I think I was on a treadmill when we were talking—and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow get our physical workout with a spiritual workout? And give our souls a workout as well as our bodies and minds?’ ” says Blake.
The notion of encouraging active Christianity in teens had been foremost in Blake’s mind. As the editor of Insight, he was surrounded by youth events, and he began to notice redundancy in the programming.
“Youth events were almost always some kind of speaker and then some kind of music. And then everyone went home. Or maybe there was a call to come up and recommit yourself for the umpteenth time,” remembers Blake. “I was wanting something that put faith into action.”
An idea grew from that gym conversation. Blake imagined a short-term mission trip that gathered teenagers from all across the country. It would be different from academy or church mission trips, where everyone already knew each other. He wanted to draw a diverse crowd—and specifically draw kids from public high schools.
“I felt as though these students got left out a lot, so I wanted public school students from across the country involved so that they could get out of their environment and bond with people in a fresh setting,” says Blake.
Insight partnered with Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and Maranatha, and in 1990 he launched “The Trip,” a mission adventure that drew 14 teenagers. It was a small response, but it was successful. The following year Maranatha was asked to handle the logistics, with Insight continuing to market and report the project; the event was reborn as “Ultimate Workout.”
Now in its twenty-fifth year, the Ultimate Workout has exercised the mind, body, and spirit of thousands of youth. For some the experience has become a faint and pleasant memory from childhood. But for others—such as Lopez—the Ultimate Workout was a pivotal moment that shaped the rest of their life.
A Calling to Missions
The same year that Lopez was called to the Ultimate Workout, he crossed paths with another young man headed to Panama. Joel Mickelwait was 16 years old, and he had heard about the all-teen mission trip from a friend and read about it in Insight. Intrigued, he signed up.
“I had never experienced so much work and so many wonderful people. I was really blessed by it. I thought it was awesome,” says Mickelwait. “Somewhere in there I really knew I had a calling to missions.”
On the trip Mickelwait spent time with the medical team. The outreach opened his eyes to the possibilities of medicine—but it was specifically dentistry that caught his attention.
“The dental lines were always longer than the medical lines,” remembers Mickelwait.
That observation stayed with him through college. After a few more Ultimate Workouts, Mickelwait enrolled at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, majoring in aviation and Spanish. He considered the possibility of going to medical school. Then halfway through his undergraduate experience he remembered those long lines in the mission field. It clicked. He was going to be a dentist.
Fast-forward 19 years. Mickelwait, now a dental surgeon, has just returned from an 18-month stint in Haiti, where he is developing a sustainable village for orphaned and abused children. The undertaking, called Project 7, is part of his nonprofit called New Reality International, which focuses on medical mission trips and other relief work around the world. He and his wife started the organization in 2007, and they have traveled all around the world to mobilize teams in areas of extreme poverty.
Among his team members is Jonathan Visscher, a dental surgeon from Kelowna, Canada, who serves as president and cofounder of New Realities International Canada. Visscher and Mickelwait have a friendship that stretches back nearly two decades to an Ultimate Workout in 1998, where they first met. Like Mickelwait, Visscher’s interest in dentistry was piqued while helping with a medical clinic on the trip. One day Visscher decided to take a break and explore other outreach options. He ended up at the dental clinic, where a fellow 15-year-old named David Lopez was doing extractions. Fascinated, he watched until Lopez offered to let him try. That day Visscher extracted his first tooth.
Lopez remembers Jonathan. “He was so excited. I’ve taught a lot of kids [how to pull teeth]. But Jonathan was just glowing,” says Lopez. “I didn’t do anything else that day but just help him do extractions. You could tell it was a perfect fit for him.”
The day left a mark on Visscher. He had grown up in a family that worked in construction, but suddenly his eyes were opened to new possibilities for his future. “I thought, Dentistry is something I should look into . . . I didn’t pull another tooth for years, but [that day on the Ultimate Workout] was good because it showed me what I could do besides construction,” he says. “As a dentist, I can also do construction, but I can afford to go on more of these trips and help out.”
Today Visscher owns a dental practice with his wife. And just as his 15-year-old self surmised, Visscher is still able to go on mission trips, where he not only does dental work but also builds structures with fellow alumnus Mickelwait.
“If we hadn’t gone on the Ultimate Workout, we wouldn’t have had the motivation and the connections to do what we are doing now,” says Visscher.
The trip also gave both of them a fresh perspective and new meaning for their faith. “Missions made Christianity real. It’s not about going to church every week and doing the same thing. Mission work has given me a way to use my talents and experience and skills in a meaningful way,” says Visscher.
Adds Mickelwait, “I was a Christian before I got involved. But Ultimate Workout and Maranatha gave wings to Christianity through service.”
A Sense of Belonging
Like so many other teens, Jessica Richmond was reading an issue of Insight when she came across an article about a teen mission trip in California. A spiritually hungry teenager attending public school, Richmond was immediately drawn to the idea of serving with other young Adventists. But when she asked her parents, they said no.
“Rather than feeling shot down, the next year when Insight magazine came out with this Ultimate Workout idea to go on an overseas mission trip, I thought, Well, they won’t let me go to San Francisco. Maybe they’ll let me go overseas,” remembers Richmond. And sure enough, when Richmond asked, her parents said that if she raised the money, she could go. “I’m pretty sure they said that to discourage me, and I basically took it as a challenge.”
Richmond wrote letters, washed vehicles, and did everything possible to raise the money. And that summer she went to Panama. The experience was transformative.
“Being in public school, you have to decide—you have to make your own choice: What is my faith going to look like and what is being a Christian going to mean to me? Not everybody does go to church, so the fact that you choose to go to church or that you choose to be part of a youth group is huge,” says Richmond. “I remember one of the best things about being on that first mission trip was feeling as though I had 150 new family members—young people my age, many who were in public school like me, many who wanted to know God, wanted to know who He was, didn’t have a clue what that meant and what our lives were supposed to look like, but here we were all thrown together, trying to do something creative and productive.
“It just gave me that sense of belonging . . . where it’s totally normal for us to sing our hearts out to Jesus. And it’s totally normal to pray and to read your Bible, and it’s cool that you do those things. And that’s huge, because that’s an influential age.”
SERVING WITH JOY: The Ultimate Workout was born in 1990 with just 14 teenage participants. Twenty-four years later the latest project welcomed nearly 300 volunteers from a dozen countries around the world. Each year hundreds sign up in hopes of being transformed by God.
David Lopez, at 15, helps with a dental clinic during an Ultimate Workout in Venezuela.
Lopez, director of volunteer projects at Maranatha Volunteers International, in Tamale, Ghana, leads a Maranatha mission trip to build a school.
Lopez, pictured with local children in Darsi, India, says that after his first Ultimate Workout he felt called to work in missions.
Joel Mickelwait breaks a sweat at his first Ultimate Workout in Panama, 1996, a trip that inspired him to become a dentist and serve in the mission field.
Mickelwait works in Haiti with his nonprofit organization, New Reality International, started with a fellow Ultimate Workout alumnus.
Mickelwait, with a patient in Myanmar on a mission trip, says mission trips offer a chance for people to “meet Jesus through service.”
MINISTRY PREPARATION: Left: Jessica Richmond credits mission trips with her decision to attend an Adventist college and eventually become a pastor.
MISSION-MINDED: Right: Steve Case, who ran Maranatha’s Ultimate Workout for 21 years, says, “I know nothing that makes as big a change in a short time as a mission trip, and if you do that to an exponential degree, that’s the Ultimate Workout.”
Richmond was 17 years old at the time, about to enter her senior year of high school. Before she went on the Ultimate Workout, she had been contemplating a career in the Air Force. There was just one thing she couldn’t get past: There was no guarantee that she could observe the Sabbath while at the Air Force Academy.
The next year Richmond returned to the Ultimate Workout. Again she made new friends while reconnecting with old ones. But this time she was invited to serve as one of the spiritual leaders.
“I don’t think anybody would have considered me a leader—certainly not in my high school, certainly not the people I was friends with, and certainly not anybody in my family,” says Richmond. “And when I went on Ultimate Workout the first year, I don’t remember having desires to be a leader, but I do remember being invited to help with leadership. So the girl who’s not cool back in public school can really be cool doing things for God.”
The experience was so pivotal that Richmond began to rethink the Air Force. Instead, bolstered by the knowledge that some of her mission trip friends would be there, Richmond packed her bags and headed for Pacific Union College (PUC) in Angwin, California.
By the time she graduated from PUC, Richmond had served as the religious vice president of the Student Association, helped as staff on a few more Ultimate Workouts, and applied to seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
“I don’t remember having an experience in which God said, ‘Jessica, you need to be a pastor.’ It’s just where I found myself. It was what my heart wanted to do. It was who He made me to be, and it still is,” says Richmond, who most recently served as senior pastor of the Tracy Adventist Church in California. “One of my favorite things to do is to see someone who knows very little about Jesus or about what He’s done for us and . . . to see their perspective change once they start reading the Scriptures—and to see their hope come alive. That’s the experience I had on Ultimate Workout.”
All Things Become New
Three years into Ultimate Workout’s trajectory, Steve Case, then a youth pastor, took over the project. He gathered applications, recruited volunteer staff, organized the program, and led the masses on-site. After more than 20 years of coordinating the project for Maranatha, Case retired from Ultimate Workout last year. Along the way, he’s gathered quite a bit of knowledge on teens, faith, identity, and service. For him the Ultimate Workout epitomizes what mission trips are meant to be.
“I was struck by the high impact of this mission trip compared to others that I had been on,” says Case, who is currently the president and founder of Involve Youth. “This project is unique. I think people actually experience 2 Corinthians 5:17: ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are be-come new’ [KJV].”
Teenagers, Case says, are ready to “become new.” Developmentally they are searching for identity, and being dropped into a new situation allows them to redefine themselves, away from preconceived notions of family, friends, and home.
On a mission trip with strangers, teens can release the label of what it means to be spiritual back at home and redefine it on the trip. Says Case, “Some are trying out a new Christianity. They can take the risk, and also because they don’t know other people, they are willing to take different risks in the short term. And when they do that, they find a new intimacy that they didn’t have back at home.”
Lopez agrees. He recalls the feeling of freedom he felt on the Ultimate Workout as a teenager, and that first trip to Panama was a game changer. “I remember being thrilled that there were other teenagers who cared about others, about Christ . . . all of a sudden I was familiar with 100 teens that were comfortable saying that Christ is important. . . . At home I was shy and introverted and unsure of who I was. During [the Ultimate Workout] I was able to be whoever I wanted to be.”
When Lopez returned from Panama, he called the conference office in Washington to ask if there were any mission trips he could join. (There were, and he did.) He continued to go on the Ultimate Workout year after year as staff, he volunteered as a long-term coordinator for Maranatha in Costa Rica, and in college he organized mission trips to Guatemala on his own.
Then in 2006 Lopez got a call from Maranatha asking if he was interested in working for the organization full-time. He had recently started a small but flourishing business. But the thought of working in missions full-time tugged strongly on his heart.
“I enjoyed the business. I enjoyed the thrill of it and being responsible for everything. But I asked myself, ‘Am I putting my talents toward what God wants me to put them toward?’ ” After he visited the Maranatha office, his mind was set. He sold his share of the business and headed for California. “[Maranatha] was where God was calling me.”
Eight years later Lopez is right back where he started—in the thick of the Ultimate Workout. In 2014 he took over as project coordinator and led 300 volunteers to the Dominican Republic—Maranatha’s biggest Ultimate Workout yet. This project was slightly different from trips in the past, given the sheer volume of participants and changes to the program structure. But the objective of the Ultimate Workout remains the same: to give teens a physical and spiritual workout through service. And just as Lopez, Mickelwait, Visscher, and Richmond saw so many years ago, these teens began to see life in a new light—and along with it, new possibilities.
On the most recent project a volunteer told Lopez she didn’t understand why she felt so different on the mission trip.
“I would never get up front and sing at home. I would never share how I’m feeling. I would never be this excited about life,” the volunteer said.
“What do you think is different?” Lopez asked.
She thought a little bit and said, “I don’t have worships like this at home.”
Lopez pauses, emotional as he recalls the moment. These epiphanies are what changed his life, and it’s what he prays for now.
“I remember telling her, ‘With Christ in your life, it doesn’t have to stop here. You can take it home.’ ”