FORT SILL, Okla. (Sept. 28, 2018) -- A church mission to Poland opened one Army spouse's eyes to a new and enchanting world.
Andrea Heaton and her husband, Lt. Col. Ralph Heaton, commander of 1st Battalion, 40th Field Artillery, are members of Western Hills Christian Church, 1401 NW 82nd in Lawton. Their church has been planting new churches overseas as part of a long-range goal to "build a forest," and church members try to go on journeys to Poland every other year to maintain ties with these. This year was the first time Andrea has been able to make the trip.
"It was a very good opportunity at this time in my husband's career," she explained. "My children are older. And honestly, I'd never been to Europe, and I wanted to grow my relationship with God, and I knew that this provided an opportunity of new things to try. When the church said we have this trip coming, my husband and I talked about it, and off I went.
"It was a very good experience. It was life-changing. There wasn't anything I didn't like. I loved every part of being in Poland. I miss Poland. I look forward to going back if I have the opportunity. And it was just a beautiful experience. It really was."
She was one of 12 who made the trip led by the Rev. David Menge, pastor of Western Hills, and the Rev. Doyle Warren, pastor of Southwestern Christian Church in Oklahoma City. The trip started June 1, and people came back at different intervals. Andrea was able to stay for 21 days.
"We were working to build community relationships through churches while we were there," she explained. "The trip was divided into four different segments. It was designed to work with the local churches in Poland to build bridges between the church and the community. I think this was accomplished in both locations (Nysa and Warsaw)."
The trip was designed to allow the American team to interact with the people of Poland, specifically those in the church, she said. They worked alongside each other, ate meals together, and worshiped together.
The Church of Christ in Nysa is the sister church of Western Hills Christian Church of Lawton. The 12 travelers split into two teams. One team remodeled a flat in Nysa for a single mother and her three children. Andrea was part of another team that went into four different schools in Nysa to talk about life in the United States and help Polish children with their English. They spent five days in Nysa.
"Dave asked me to visit and present American culture to a college, two high schools, and a school for disabled children. I created a PowerPoint presentation showing maps of the U.S., pictures of its beautiful landscapes, and photographs of family, friends, holidays, and celebrations using personal photographs. I loved giving a brief on the U.S. as we were always met with enthusiasm and especially curiosity. I am amazed how the media portrays the U.S., and it is good for us to go there to say, 'It's not always what you're seeing on TV.'"
Andrea is used to doing briefings because she currently works for Military One Source, a resource for Soldiers and their families throughout their careers. She's also part of the commanding general's Growing Spouses Army Strong (GSAS) program at Fort Sill. Once a quarter, she helps put on a weeklong class on customs and courtesies for Army spouses, mainly those of captains and first sergeants.
"So when our pastor asked if I wanted to go to talk about American culture, it was just a natural fit," she said. "We just shared a little bit about our American culture to show the things that we do, how we celebrate life, and how big and vast and beautiful our country is, and how we're all connected. Ultimately, we're all connected."
The questions she most commonly faced centered on President Trump, healthcare, life/cost of college, gun control, and traveling.
"The school for disabled children is what tugged at my heartstrings," she said.
The school housed children with disabilities ranging from mild to severe.
"Yet all the while their teachers consistently loved the children. It was a beautiful time. The children wanted to give us hugs, high-fives, play with hula hoops, show us artwork, and to simply love on us. All you need is faith, trust, and a little love. It goes a long way," Andrea said.
She left her PowerPoint slides with the Rev. Robel Bartec, pastor of the Church of Christ in Nysa, when the tour moved on to Warsaw.
Of her visit to Wilano, the hip new suburb of Warsaw teeming with young families, parks, and a thirst for spiritual growth, she said, "That was a really fun time. We worked with some of the church plants there, and basically they're just trying to build new churches that are Christian, not specifically a denomination."
While there, her team worked as a test group for gaming developers. They tested a new game based on building a forest. It was designed to help church planters understand the need to work together because the resources are limited.
"They broke us up into groups. They wanted to see how we would play the game and how we would build a forest as a team. It was interesting to see the way that different people viewed how to build a team, and how to build communities together. It was a lot of fun. I was really impressed by the idea," Andrea said.
The developers told the Americans they had actually scored higher than most teams that have tried the game. She attributes this to the fact they were very curious and really wanted to play and provide feedback. They had to learn to work through obstacles, something that as an Army spouse she knows all too well.
"Our time in Poland was truly magical. You could see God's love everywhere within the people," Andrea told her home congregation upon her return home.
For the fourth and final segment of the trip, the Americans went to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. There they were given a tour by Slavik Lytvynenko, a professor at Charles University who translates ninth-century manuscripts into the Czech language and then into English. Prague is a very busy city, but having him as a guide seemed to make the surrounding hustle and bustle disappear, she found.
"His knowledge, willingness, and love came through every step that he took us. Visiting cemeteries, synagogues, and learning about the 15th century really put things into a perspective of the past," she said.