(EDITOR'S NOTE: Home-Grown Missions profiles missionaries, both full- and part-time, who grew up in area churches. As part of an on-going series, letters home from those serving on the mission field occasionally also will be published.)
Fostering dreams and offering hope where there was none. Those are two of the significant changes that city native Matt Keiser has seen since he began working with people in Honduras.
"One of the big lessons taught to us growing up as kids was the importance of missions. I remember missionaries who we supported as a church coming in and speaking to us. I was infused with the sense that missions were very integral to the life of our church, both city missions within the United States and international missions as well," Keiser, 29, said.
Matt Keiser, of Williamsport, right, with one of the youngsters he works with in Honduras.
While some youths in his church (Agape Fellowship Mennonite Church, 485 E. Third St.) at the time participated in short-term missions trips run through the Mennonite Conference, Keiser did not. He did, however, assist the Mennonite Disaster Service helping cleanup after tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia.
Another lesson he recalls from his home church is that "our lives are meant to be a service to Christ and to others. I carried that idea through my high school and college (years) thinking that whatever I ended up doing it was to serve others and to serve Christ as well," he said.
After graduating from Williamsport Area High School in 2000, Keiser attended Eastern College, near Philadelphia, graduating in 2004 with a degree in political science and secondary education. He thought at the time that school teaching would be his service area. Finding a full-time teaching job wasn't that easy, however.
NAME: Matt Keiser
HOME CHURCH: Agape Fellowship
HIGH SCHOOL: Williamsport Area
COLLEGE: Eastern College
SPONSOR ORGANIZATION: Eastern Mennonite Missions
MISSION FIELD: La Ceiba, Honduras
START DATE: May 2008
BLOG SITE: http://honduraskeiser.blogspot.com/
Missions not in plan
"Missions had never been part of my thinking. I never considered international missions to be something that was in my future, but I told God I would open that door if it was what He wanted, and I applied to our church mission board as a step of faith," he said.
Still thinking teaching was his calling, Keiser accepted a position at a small Mennonite school in Lancaster County, where he taught for two years.
During that time, the church he attended, Fraser Mennonite, became interested in building a relationship with a church in Honduras. That was the summer of 2006 and Keiser decided to go on a trip there with others from the church.
Felt the call
"After that, I felt a pull back to that place. I felt like God was showing me all kinds of things in terms of working with gang members there and the work that the church was doing in a really poor community," he said.
Once back in the states, Keiser continued school teaching, but he also began a yearlong process of preparing for the mission field through Eastern Mennonite Missions. One completed, he spent another eight months in Costa Rica learning Spanish before moving to La Ceiba, the country's third-largest city, to begin a three-year term in May of 2008.
Initially, he worked in an office as a translator, but when an opportunity arose that October to serve as a translator for some doctors coming into the country for a week, he jumped at it.
"One day they took me to the garbage dump of La Ceiba - Los Laureles. I didn't know this place existed and I was completely blown away. I asked some of the people who lived there if there was any church group or government group working there and they said no. I then talked with some of the local church leaders and they gave me their blessing to go back and see what I could do.
"I went once or twice a week for a couple of hours just to get to know the people a little bit. At the same time I still was working back at the office, but very quickly I felt like God was opening a door and I started to build some real relationships with people in the community. It turned into three days a week and then every day," he said.
Helping to educate students and holding vacation Bible school classes became the focus of his work by early 2009. He has spent the last two years working with children through Bible lessons, devotions, taking them on mini-trips outside of the area, organizing soccer teams and starting a scholarship program so some can attend a private Christian School, affiliated with the United Brethren in Christ, and continue their education beyond the normal sixth-grade level.
"They (normally) graduate from sixth-grade as 13, 14 and 15-year-olds and then go on to find work on garbage trucks or selling bananas or scavaging," Keiser said of the Honduras education system and life after. The scholarship program he works with sponsors 15 students.
Challenges in Honduras are many. Keiser said according to recent UN statistics, the country is the per capita murder capital of the world, and the city he lives in is No. 1 in the country, although most of it is inter-gang and drug related.
"I've never really felt in danger. There are just certain neighborhoods that you don't go into, or you don't go into after dark, and at night you don't travel alone," he said.
Also, lack of funding is a constant issue along with being discerning in the midst of great poverty on how much to do and for whom so that natives don't develop too much of a dependency on him.
Keiser said he has been blessed by the relationships he has developed with the natives.
"Aside from my family, they have come to be the most important people in my life. Not because I'm ministering to them, but they've become some of my closest friends and people that I deeply love, and I know they love me as well," Keiser said.
Within the past year when Keiser moved into the Los Laureles community, it was another wake-up call.
"It's a struggle to find potable water. It's a two-hour process every afternoon to find enough potable water to get you through the day. I wasn't prepared for all of that. And my position in the community began to change. I was seen less as a rich white person, or as a Santa Claus with all this stuff to give out, and more as someone who needed to be taken care of," he said.
That was never more evident than last September and October when Keiser came down with dengue fever and had to be taken care of by the natives.
"They went out and bought medicine and injected me. They provided me with meals when I didn't have any help to get water. I think there was a vulnerability because of the circumstances that deepened our relationship in a lot of ways," he said.
"It's a very hopeless community, at least it has been. Life isn't very easy and people have just resigned themselves that this is as good as it gets. This group of kids I have in the education program, I think they signed up because it was something that was different, but I don't know that they had hope of going very far in high school, and certainly not on any professional career path.
"I noticed their attitude started to change in the first year. And then last year they became really interested in what they were studying in high school and begin to talk about after high school, (going to the) university. One person even mentioned wanting to be a doctor. That might still be out of reach, but the fact that they are talking about it seriously is incredible," Keiser said.
Time to go deeper
"More recently, I've sensed that God has wanted to go deeper into the lives of a couple of specific kids. There are some who are hungering beyond a surface-level knowledge to really know who Jesus is and what a commitment to Him looks like in their lives; what it means to live daily as a follower of Christ," he said.
A discipleship program Keiser started shortly before he returned stateside in November has produced positive results and the program will continue when he returned there late last month.
"The first two, two-and-a-half years it was about building relationships, getting to know the community and getting to know the people there, and building trust. Now, the work is beginning to focus more on going deeper in a few key people, building them up as leaders and allowing them to permeate the rest of the community," Keiser said.
During his furlough, Keiser continued his training, while raising support and resting, occasionally at the home of his parents, Bill and Kathy Keiser, in Williamsport.