Experiencing pure joy through helping others is closest thing to heaven on earth

There are so many ways to make a difference in this world, and everyone brings different skills to the table when building groundbreaking coalitions for global unity.

Some people are gifted at raising funds, and they finance the future of philanthropy -- such as Bill Gates. Others build awareness and research causes to direct people toward their personal mission fields. Invisible Children made a splash last year, and their success in building awareness of forced child militaries in some regions of the world was both celebrated and reviled worldwide. Then there are those who feel a strong calling to be the hands and feet of the mission itself. They are called to go out into the world to shake hands and hug their fellow human beings across the globe.

Last week I flew to Panama with an intergenerational team to live out that call to be among people who were once "other" and completely alien. By intergenerational, I mean we had high school youth, a college student, a mom, local business owners and some wonderful retired people who wanted to make a difference. Our church has been connected and has supported a pastor named Rhett for years, and he has spoken at our church about Panama and the work there, but we hadn't seen it with our own eyes or placed stakes in the ground with our own hands.

It was from a desire to build stronger ties that we headed out in an initial trip in October 2011. A local team traveled to Panama with to meet with Rhett, participate in the work of the mission, meet the people whom this pastor served, and build stronger ties with Christians working faithfully apart from us. That first mission was a success. We held a Vacation Bible School led by a retired teacher in our group, and the worker bees (including myself) painted the mission building, built a retaining wall for a new soccer field and repaired insect screens on the open-air windows. We were unable to visit the Gnobe people's villages, which is the native tribe for whom the mission served. A tree had destroyed a bridge during a flash flood. We left strong as a team, feeling the Lord's presence. We had strengthened ties with Christians in the city of David and the village of Cienaguita, but we still felt we needed to go further.

Last week we returned. Rhett had been able to build a connection between the natives, the village, the government, some Methodist churches in the U.S., and the Methodist church in a local city. A bridge had been built, and this new team made of up of people of many different views and stages of life were able to walk across the river and mostly uphill for 38 minutes through rainforest-like conditions to build the foundations for two homes and the steel grid structure for a second. We worked hard, drinking about five bottles of water a day in heavy humidity, making concrete, drilling holes in steel plates, digging and leveling space for the foundational platforms. All this for families who worked with and among us.

As the week came to a close, one young man named Juaqin, who is the oldest of a family of 10, whose mother had carried the bricks for their home up that mountain two at a time, invited us into his home. It was probably about 16 feet by 16 feet and had two bedrooms and a main area, but he glowed as he invited our team of 15 in. He felt as if he were in a mansion. My heart was warmed, and I could feel the presence of God, who had worked through the hearts and hands of so many people to make this happen. We closed by reciting together the "Lord's Prayer" and thanked our father in heaven.

I thought about this and realized we had experienced a sign of what heaven will be like. People of all ages and nations coming together in unity to worship and thank God for his blessings. I imagined Christ on a throne in each of our hearts, and I was overcome with joy.

My prayer is that every person of the earth will experience this joy at least one time in their lives, if not continually. Not everyone can be out in the fields of the earth, but everyone in the chain made that moment possible. Let's be thankful that the holy spirit continues to prod us like the apostles and the early believers who shared what they had and went out to care for all people. Let's continue to be agents of God's love and spread God's good news to every living soul.

Columnist Daniel Griswold is the director of youth at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church. Follow him at Read his blog at