PANAMA CITY, FL — A group of college students from First Baptist Church in Statesboro ministered to peers on spring break March 11-17 via van rides, free breakfast, and sharing the plan of salvation.
The group joined some 600 other students from around the country at the event, Beach Reach, sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources.
"It was a phenomenal week of ministry," said Tony Pagliarullo, college minister at First Baptist. "I believe we were the only collegiate group from Georgia there last week. Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers served us dinner each night. More importantly, those volunteers were up early to cook pancakes every morning that we served to spring breakers."
Students offered nearly 3,300 pancakes over the week. In addition, they provided more than 8,500 van rides and witnessed 27 pray to receive Christ. And though the focus was talking with others about Jesus, Pagliarullo couldn't help but notice the effect on his group from south Georgia.
"For some of them this was their first mission trip. One expressed it was the best one she'd ever been on. They came back excited to do more intentional evangelism on the Georgia Southern campus.
"This was an eclectic group, where no one was best friends with anyone else before we left. But they gelled over the week and formed some good friendships."
An evening of prayer-walking their first night in Panama City set up the activities for the rest of the week. In the mornings, students served at the pancake breakfasts. Evening outreach began at 9 p.m. as vans began to roll out and provide transportation to spring breakers. Simultaneously, students in a prayer room monitored a screen where fellow "Beach Reachers" on the vans could post prayer request updates according to the conversations taking place. Eventually, nightly events wrapped up around 2 a.m.
"None of our students had done a trip of this nature before," said Pagliarullo. "They'd helped with construction or Vacation Bible School, but nothing like this. The conversations were very intentional They'd ask riders what they thought about Jesus, were they plugged into a ministry or church at home, could they pray for them, and other things."
Riders responded more openly than one might expect, Pagliarullo reported. "Many had gone to church before college, and maybe while at college. The vast majority had some understanding of the Gospel. However, living it out wasn't a priority for them at this point."
Many, he added, expressed an interest in reconnecting with a campus ministry or local church. Only a couple were antagonistic to hearing the Gospel.
"One young man had experienced losing his father when he was a young teenager," Pagliarullo said, relayed, "and when he tried to talk to a local pastor about it the discussion didn't go well. From that point, he'd always wrestled with the concept of God's goodness in bad times."
Pagliarullo told him he understood. His own father had died five years ago, about the same time as the rider's. The college minister gave his cell number to the young man, but hasn't heard from him yet.
It wasn't as simple as riding in a van and serving pancakes, though.
This was spring break. And, the riders were college students. Many had been drinking, hence, the need to call for a van ride.
"Yeah, we had a couple throw up on the bus," said Pagliarullo. "We pulled over to a gas station and got some Lysol and other cleaning supplies. A nursing student declared she wasn't squeamish and volunteered to clean it up."
Notwithstanding, the trip was a success.
"We met students from not just all over the country, but the world. Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, all over," he testified. "We had a lot of good conversations leading people to re-think and re-examine their faith. The students did a great job."
And, Pagliarullo pointed out, things really took off once they cleared the biggest hurdle – themselves.
"You could hear the uncertainty and hesitancy in their voices at times in starting up discussions," he said, "but they kept doing it."
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