Globetrotting for God: GCU students find spiritual purpose during mission trips

Story by Janie Magruder
GCU Today Magazine

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The words of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, recorded in Matthew 28:19-20

Christ’s Great Commission is being heard loud and clear by His followers at Grand Canyon University.

This spring and summer, 233 GCU students and 24 staff members visited 16 countries on five continents to show God’s love, preach the Gospel, experience other cultures and find their global, spiritual purposes. The students signed up and were trained for mission trips organized by the University’s Office of Spiritual Life.

GCU’s Global Outreach Ministry began five years when a total of 13 students made two trips, to Germany and the Dominican Republic. This year, 21 trips were made possible through partnerships with global mission organizations such as Students International, CURE and Back2Back.

The students’ experiences were nothing short of life-changing.

“We say, ‘Short-term trip, lifetime impact,’ and that goes both ways,” said Liz Martin, GCU’s Global Outreach Coordinator and a 2013 GCU alumna who accompanied students to India and China. “Our students go out with these global superheroes to rock the nation of XYZ, but they come out of that nation with their world rocked, and they are hungry to learn how they can continue to go out in the nations.”

Once back on American soil, some are inspired to start volunteering for agencies in the Phoenix area, while others are laying groundwork to pursue global mission work after graduating. Then there’s GCU sophomore Tashina Thuraisingam, who spent three weeks in May in western Honduras. There, in the muddy waters of the San Juan River, the 19-year-old was baptized.

A rocky road to faith

Thuraisingam’s parents were divorced when she was young, and she spent most of her girlhood shuttling from her hometown of Flagstaff to California and back again. As a teenager, she didn’t know where she fit and didn’t make the best choices in friendships and relationships. At 17, her world was unraveling.

“I was in a dark place, and it felt like there was a hole in my heart,” said Thuraisingam, who attempted suicide and was rescued by her sister. “I feel so blessed that my sister showed up and saved me, and I took it as a sign that God had a purpose for me.”

Following her graduation from high school, she planned to attend Coconino Community College. That changed when Thurasingam's dad saw a TV commercial about GCU, and they decided to visit. She loved the spacious campus and believed the University’s Christian atmosphere could give her a fresh start. Weeks into her freshman year, the psychology major  accepted GCU’s invitation for a summer missions trip to Honduras, not knowing anything about the country nor what would be expected of her. But she loved children, and she hoped that hugging them and putting smiles on their faces would be enough.

As He is inclined to do, God had other plans for Thuraisingam, who, with six other students and staff videographer Ray Chener, arrived in Intibucá, Honduras, on Saturday, May 17. (To watch a trailer for Chener's upcoming documentary about the Honduras trip, click here.) She remembered being shocked by the poverty and repulsed by the living conditions, which the others had seen on previous mission trips. The old feelings from high school of being an outsider began to creep in.

“Every girl on my team had that look of determination — ‘I’m going to go in and teach them about God,’ — and I felt, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing; can you give me a script?’ I couldn’t even talk to them about the Bible,” she said.

GCU senior Denelle Esmay noticed Thuraisingam’s withdrawal and stepped up to mentor her. The next thing Thuraisingam knew, she was getting letters from the others about how easy it was to confide in her. That changed everything, and she began to notice the beauty around her — the skies that seemed to stretch forever, the peaceful meandering river and the stunning green meadows. In nature, she took every free moment to read her Bible and pray.

“I felt calm, and nothing else mattered,” she said. “It’s just you and the wind and the birds and the river. Being in God’s creation was the most amazing thing.”

Thuraisingam had a long talk with Pastor Edman Pineda of Hands Giving Hope, GCU’s global partner in the Honduras trip. She began to realize that, if God could forgive her, she could — and should — forgive herself.

One continent, three broken countries

Parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, where girls as young as 10 are sold as sex slaves, are so broken one worders if there’s enough forgiveness in God’s heart to go around. If GCU staffer Josh Hulkkonen wasn’t certain of that, he wouldn’t be planning to go back next summer.

Hulkkonen and fellow residential director Jennifer Doane led a mission trip of nine students through seven cities in Southeast Asia over 15 days in May and June. They learned about the efforts of local missionaries and advocates from Destiny Rescue to rescue victims of sex trafficking.

“My prayer going into this was our hearts would be broken for what breaks the Lord’s heart, and we would want to do something about it,” said Hulkkonen, 24. “It was very hard to come home. We wanted to learn more and do more. We were all shocked by something.”

Shocked by the foreboding darkness of Myanmar and the poverty and sadness in Cambodia, where young girls are kidnapped, sold by their parents to support the rest of the family or tricked into the sex-slave trade under the pretense of office employment.

The team listened to powerful stories of missionaries who rescue young people and bring them to safe houses, and the students spent time on the streets with translators, trying to establish trust with the girls, obtain their contact information and turn it over to Destiny Rescue for follow-up.

“In talking with the girls, we could see the hurt,” Hulkkonen said. “We asked them, if they weren’t here, what would they want to do? You could see joy emerge when they talked about what they wished they could do.”

Since returning in May, four GCU students on Hulkkonen’s team have interviewed to work with Destiny Rescue, and others are planning campaigns to raise awareness of sex trafficking and encourage support of projects eradicating it.

Washing away her shame

On Saturday, May 24, Thuraisingam hiked to the San Juan River with Diane Kocur of Hands Giving Hope. They talked about God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and in that place she had grown to love so much, Thuraisingam invited Jesus into her heart.

But Satan wasn’t done with her yet. In the dawn of the next morning, Thuraisingam awakened with a fever and searing ear pain. She, Kocur and GCU student Nicole Peron prayed together that God would shatter any attempts to block her baptism. She thought, “I’m stronger now than that.”

The next day, on Monday, May 26, 10 people scrambled down the rocks to the San Juan River and watched Thuraisingam wade into the brown water with Pineda and Kocur. Later, another student would tell her that, as she was being baptized, the clouds parted and light shined down on her. Kocur said her face “looked like heaven, so peaceful, I was smiling in the water.”

Thuraisingam remembers two things — first, the thing that matters: “I felt God’s presence, and I want to feel it every day.” Second, the thing that matters not at all: She lost a flip-flop in the river.

And there is this: Thuraisingam’s earache and fever were gone.

Matching passions with their needs

Cara Clancy thought she’d found her purpose in the fifth grade. A young gymnast and volleyball player, Clancy had sustained 16 broken bones and become fast friends with her orthopedic surgeon. Being a children’s bone doctor was for her.

A few years later, her future path became further defined when she saw a video about the suffering of children in Africa. “I knew I needed to go there and do something medically related,” said the 21-year-old GCU senior and pre-med major. “And it wasn’t just me dreaming it up, but the Lord placing it within me.”

So Clancy, who’d taken five global missions trips with her church, jumped at the chance to be part of GCU’s first journey to Uganda in central Africa. She and five other GCU students spent eight weeks on a medical mission trip with the University’s global partner, CURE International, which operates a children’s hospital in Mbale.

They started out on a spiritual note in Gulu, teaching Bible stories to villagers, playing with children and helping out in the kitchens. Later, they moved to Mbale to shadow doctors at CURE’s hospital for children suffering from hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. Clancy observed doctors in surgery, learned to read CT scans and had her heart stolen by 7-year-old Arafat Mumbere, a patient with a hugely misshapen head whose back was hunched and legs abnormally small. But, oh, that smile.

“He would say random sentences to me all the time about how much Jesus loved me,” Clancy said. “That made me want to tell everyone about this little boy and how blessed and loved they are.”

Weeks before, Clancy had not felt so loved. Her boyfriend of nearly four years, around whom she’d planned her life, ended their relationship right before her trip.

“It was good timing to answer the Lord’s call,” she said. “I prayed for God to reveal to me that there are people out there like me, people who love to write, who love adventure, who love to travel, who love Your people.”God answered by putting people in Clancy’s path — Ugandans who had much to complain about, but never did, and His dedicated servants — who made her think twice about her journey in life.

“Before this trip, I was dead set on going to P.A. (physician assistant) school,” Clancy said. “But now, I’m wondering if I will take a year off after graduation or if I will live overseas and join a ministry or maybe the Peace Corps? I am open to whatever the Lord leads me to. I’m praying about it.”


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Bible Verse

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. (Ephesians 6:13)

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