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placeholder June 23, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA

Karen Barrett's mission group brought shoes and clothing to a Catholic school in Ghana.

Karen Barrett, left, and her mission group visited the Du Bois Memorial Centre in Accra, Ghana, where the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) is buried.

Embarking on a mission with an open heart

The children are what Karen Barrett talks about first when she tells you about her mission to Ghana. "I enjoyed seeing the kids. I was proud of the fact that every child I met was polite. They were all very well-mannered and they love having their picture taken."


Though she has been on other missions, this was Karen Barrett's first trip to Africa.

Bringing gifts to Ghana

If you ask Karen Barrett if she packed enough underwear for her mission trip to Ghana earlier this year, she might laugh.

When Barrett learned that it is customary to bring gifts on such trips, she chose to carry underwear, for boys and girls age 5 to 12.

Barrett invited people at her church, sorority and chancery co-workers to take part in her mission, and she was also assisted by grants from Target and Walmart.

She placed a cardboard box near her desk, which overflowed with donations of brightly colored superhero and flowered characters that she would have filled more than a suitcase. She had to ship them — 120 pounds — ahead. She distributed them at schools on her mission trip.

"I'm overwhelmed at the open hearts of people," she said.
She has the photos to prove it: Smiling school children; dancing school children; serious school children.

"When I look at those pictures, just to see them so happy, to remember them so happy, was great," she said.

Barrett, a Holy Names High School alumna who serves as the administrative assistant in the Diocese of Oakland finance office, made her first overseas mission trip this spring.

As the executive secretary for the National Convocation of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, she traveled as part of a delegation on a 10-day mission/service trip. Barrett represented Mills Grove Christian Church of Oakland, and the Christian Churches in Northern California-Nevada.

Barrett's previous missions have included a music ministry mission to Honolulu. Her church's affiliation with the All Peoples Christian Center in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the Disciples of Christ in Los Angeles, has taken her to Southern California to assist with afterschool programs, and an annual health fair.

Sometimes, representatives of the Los Angeles church visit Oakland, learning about community gardens and wellness activities.

She embarked on her mission to Ghana with an open heart, looking forward to seeing how people of faith worship in that country. "I didn't know what to expect," Barrett said before the mission, "maybe an understanding of how people live in their surroundings."

An accomplished vocalist, one of Barrett's roles on the mission was to lead songs for the daily devotions with her delegation.

Barrett got to use her voice, too, during the mission's visits to schools. "We visited one Catholic school, one public school, in different regions," she said.

The welcome was warm at the first school. "The kids were all lined up, ready for us," she said. "They knew we were coming." The childrens' welcome to their visitors included song.

Their visitors offered a song of their own. "We sang 'Lift Every Voice and Sing," Barrett said. Additionally, they sang a song their tour bus driver had taught them, a song that Barrett is researching further in hopes of teaching it to children locally.

Unlike the bells that announce recess here, the children Barrett visited respond to drums summoning them to breaks in their school day.

"They understood what the cadences meant," she said. "They knew it was time to come out."

Some of the girls were dancing. "I couldn't get my camera out fast enough," Barrett said. "It was good to see this is how they dance, that this is what they do."

At the schools, the visitors gave gifts to the children. In addition to the underwear that Barrett had collected for the children, dresses and shoes were distributed.

"We looked at the kids," she said, and those who needed shoes the most, got them first.

Pencils were given to students; those in middle school got pens.

At the Catholic school, a well was commissioned. The funds for it were raised by a 10-year-old East Dallas Christian Church parishioner who enlisted friends and family to raise the $4,500 to build it. During the mission, three wells were commissioned.

The mission group also offered health services, such as blood pressure checks, instruction in breast self-examination for women, and a boys-to-men puberty talk for young men.

"They're just so nice and beautiful," Barrett said of the children she met during her mission trip. "I wish them well."

The regions the mission visited were matriarchal, said Barrett. "Even though there's a chief," Barrett said, "there's a queen mother."

"The queen mother sits right next to the chief," she said. She is not always the chief's mother, but serves as his adviser.

The mission group was invited to the palace of the chief. They had been taught protocol at a previous visit to a palace. "There are some things you just don't do," Barrett said. "Your left hand, you might as well put it in your pocket."

To speak to the chief, one speaks first to one's own translator, who speaks to the chief's linguist, who in turn speaks to the chief.

Barrett, who brought back paintings, fabric and dolls, shopped carefully for her souvenirs and gifts. She discerned between "who was trying to put food on the table and who was trying to hustle me."

The journey also included a visit to Elmina Castle, where captured Africans were held before being shipped to other countries to be slaves.

"The castle's beautiful," she said. "Such ugly things happened there."

Some people in her group became very emotional as they journeyed into the dungeons, saw the plaque vowing never again, and walked to The Door of No Return.

"Once they went through that door, they didn't come back," she said. "They were the diaspora."

Barrett's first mission abroad may not be her last. She is open to future missions, as an opportunity to "be part of a move toward wholeness in a fragmented world."

"I want to come back with a thankful heart," Barrett said before her journey. "You can never know what God is planning for you, when you say yes."

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