April 1, 2013

Life-changing experiences

While most of their teammates were soaking up the fun and the sun that's typically involved with Spring Break, John Theus, Hutson Mason and six other of their teammates were answering a higher call.

Not a single beach ball in sight.

Instead, Mason, wide receiver Michael Bennett, safety Lucas Redd and safety Connor Norman spent a week on a mission trip near the Dominican Republic town of Boca Chica, while Theus, Preston Mobley, Nathan Theus and Hugh Willams served in a community approximately an hour drive from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

It was a trip both the quarterback and offensive tackle say changed their lives.

"I could have been on the beach, or at home eating Oreos and milk, but getting to experience this one thing with my teammates … it was very, very special," Mason said. "It was something I will never forget."

Neither will Theus.

"It was an eye-opening experience," Theus said of serving in the country he explains is still very much feeling the effects of the earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people in 2010. "I had never been out of the country before."

But this was not a sight-seeing tour.

Organized through Athens Church, where the players attend, the week-long missions were both conducted with specific goals in mind - to help in the communities and spread the word of God.

"We would drive 20 or 25 minutes every day into the mountains and it was incredible to see these people who live in the mountains," Mason said. "A lot of people in the mountains have never heard the word so we really just tried to go in there. It was a very relational-type trip."

Granted, they were very different circumstances from what the players are used to.

According to Mason, the majority of the people they ministered to practiced Voodoo and other areas of Satanic worship.

"It was very open Satanic. There would be three blue crosses the people would put on their house and that's what it would mean. It was everywhere," the quarterback continued. "But despite all that, they were very open with us and the more they got comfortable with us, we just started to pray for them and talk to these young guys and girls about Christ."

For Theus, seeing a country still recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory was humbling, and make him thankful for everything he has. "I definitely learned a lot. You hear a lot and see a lot with the earthquake that happened over there, but to see it, and how those people live compared to the way we live over here … it's night and day," he said. "We're in this multi-million dollar facility (Butts-Mehre Building) and they would never even imagine anything like this."

Theus credits older brother Nathan for convincing the quartet to go to Leveque, also known as the "Deaf Village."

"We'd go to the village, we'd work, till the land with pick axes and stuff, which Preston was right at home doing," Theus said of the Colquitt County native. "That's what he grew up doing."

After a full day's work, Theus said the group would go back to their house to eat before returning to a church in the village to conduct Bible study and other activities with local youngsters.

"Those kids were awesome, some of the most loving kids I've ever seen," Theus said. "They really liked us bigger guys; we're human jungle gyms to them."

For Mason, the trip was memorable for another way - he caught Dengue Fever - a form of malaria.

Fortunately, Mason recovered, although it was a bug he hopes he never has to deal with again.

"I got bit by a mosquito," he said. "I was hurting bad, I asked how I ended up with the one dumb fly that had malaria."