ECHOing Across Generations

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work” Thomas Edison said. But not by John Hanson. John is a ruling elder at Southside Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis and has worked as an educator. For over two decades, he has hauled teams of young people from our presbytery each summer to North Fort Myers, Florida to serve at ECHO.

ECHO stands for Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization. It is a Christian organization with a vision to “Honor God through sustainable hunger solutions.” From the farm in Florida, it equips people, most often missionaries, with “agricultural resources and skills to reduce hunger and improve the lives of the poor.” They serve workers in more than 165 countries and are being used to change the lives of millions of people.

In 1989, Rich Johnston, another elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, took the first team of young people from our presbytery to serve at ECHO. He and others had known ECHO’s director, Dr. Martin Price, and his wife Bonnie from their years in Indianapolis, at Geneva College, and at Purdue University. The Prices had begun their work at ECHO in 1981, and the work was still it its early stages when that first team went in 1989. Dr. Price’s fascinating and instructive testimony can be read here. His desire was to be faithful to the command of God in Isaiah 58:10-11, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” The Lord blessed the ministry like a watered garden, and it continued to grow.

As the farm, research center, library, seedbank, and other aspects of ECHO grew, John Hanson heard of the ministry from Rich Johnston and saw the opportunity to take more teams of young people. He started taking teams down each summer in the mid-1990s and has not looked back. As a result, ECHO has been changed. The ECHO leadership noted in the early years that they began to schedule their major initiatives for the year around the team’s annual arrival.

What do the teams do? Mostly, they pull weeds under the hot Florida sun, but they have also build mountains to create hillside farming techniques, constructed grape arbors, build fences, and a host of other tasks. As students drip with sweat, they have the opportunity to work alongside missionaries, interns, and others who are growing in their faith. They have the opportunity to not only learn hands on skills, but they also gain a vision for people at the ends of the earth.

John Hanson has mechanics like transportation, laundry, and cooking on the trip down to a science, and he operates on a shoestring budget. ECHO provides a mission experience for teenagers that is genuinely useful to the recipients, requires minimal financial resources, teaches discipline and hard work, and is so successful that kids keep coming back.

After sleeping each night at Trinity Reformed Church (our long-time and gracious hosts), workers arrive at ECHO for breakfast and devotions at the pavilion on the farm. After breakfast, the interns lead the young people to various projects around the farm. Aside from a break for lunch, the work continues until evening. By then, the crew rarely has enough energy to think about causing much trouble. Aside from a few trips to the beach or other fun activities in the evenings, the pattern of work, eat, and sleep repeats for two weeks until everyone comes home with stories to tell and memories to cherish for a lifetime.

Though the teams were not up and running when I was in high school, my wife and I, along with another couple, led a team to ECHO when I was a pastoral intern in 2001. We learned much leading that team of twenty-plus students, and the Lord used it to change us. At ECHO, I had the privilege of working with several students under the leadership of a retired missionary named Charlie who directed us in building a fence around newly acquired property. After the area was fenced, goats would be set free to clean up the property and make way for further development of the land.

Charlie claimed his grandfather was the West Virginia sheriff who officiated the legendary steel-driving contest between John Henry and a steam powered hammer. Charlie could do anything with his hands, and as we measured, cleared brush, cut trees, dug holes, set posts, and strung fence, he regaled us with stories from a life-time in missions support for Methodist missionaries on multiple continents. Mingled with the stories came memorable work. One particular stump needed to be removed. When we had all but the tap-root severed, we discovered a nest of fire-ants under the tree – or more significantly, they discovered us. But, the stump still had to go, so Charlie organized the three of us so that one man would jump in with the ax for as many swings as he could get at the root until the fire-ants crawled up the man’s boots and to the top of his socks. Then, he’d switch out and start swatting fire-ants while the next guy took the ax for his swings. We repeated the operation until the stump was out. The stump is long gone, but the experience lives on, as they have for so many. We were physically spent each day, but each day we were filled afresh with new lessons and new vision.

Thanks to John Hanson’s unwavering commitment to organizing and leading teams, hundreds of young people from our presbytery and beyond have learned more about hard work and service and matured through them. Their lives have been changed through the study of God’s word, reading of other books, and fellowship on the trips. They have gained a vision for the world and an understanding of how agricultural and economic development is a critical part of mercy ministry. And, the ECHO trips have played no small part in seeing some of those young people go to serve the Lord on foreign fields, often with some agricultural emphasis.

Today, my own daughter will return from ECHO, along with at least one other young person on this year’s team who is a child of an ECHO team alum. John Hanson’s ministry is now echoing across generations, and we are all the richer for it – all because he took an opportunity dressed in overalls that looked like work. If you are one of the hundreds of alumni from the teams John has overseen, feel free to share your own ECHO story, or simply say a word of thanks to John Hanson in the comments section below.

6 Comments

  1. Josh Kelley June 25, 2015 at 3:53 am #

    I had the privilege of speaking at ECHO’s chapel and leading an intern seminar in February. Was your daughter an intern?

    • James Faris June 25, 2015 at 8:06 am #

      Hi Josh, It’s always great to meet others who are involved with ECHO. In answer to your question, no, my daughter was not an intern but was on the annual summer service team that our church sends. The interns coordinate and oversee their work.

  2. Charity Mann July 6, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    I went on ECHO three times (one of the times was when my parents led the trip, and my Dad got the email on that trip about the call to pastor in Australia – a very life-changing event for me!), and God used it to shape my relationship with Him and my relationships with others. I would normally hate pulling weeds on a hot, sticky day, but the conversations and memories built during those trips made it well worth the discomfort. On my first ECHO trip, we girls would have a “contest” every night over who had the most fire ant bites. And I remember drinking expired chocolate milk out of the ECHO cooler, which was NEARLY always safe and delicious…but we definitely had at least one time when a guy on our trip took a big gulp and immediately spit out the curdled milk!

    Thank you, Mr. Hanson, for all of your work in organizing the trips. I still remember your singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!” to us on those early mornings and riding in the back of your red truck with Mrs. Hanson’s feet sticking out of the passenger window. Thank you for helping me learn what it was to serve and also the importance of a daily quiet time, as you gave us the opportunity to have time with the Lord each morning and share about what He was teaching us. I loved ECHO and hope my children have the opportunity to do it (or something similar) someday!

    • Tamara July 9, 2015 at 12:01 am #

      Wow. The emotions that come up remembering my two ECHO trips almost overwhelm me!
      The first time I went in 2005 I was only 12 and I went as the cook’s (my mum, Nancy) helper and soon was deemed the official “Laundry Girl”. It was such a privilege to go when I was young with almost all my family and watch how all the youth and leaders worked so hard and also grew in their love for the Lord. I remember the ECHO theme song that year was “Beverly Hills” by Weezer 😛 I echo what Charity said about Dad getting the call for Australia and how life changing that was on that trip as well.

      I went again in 2007 when I was 14 for just one of the two week trips when we were back on holidays from Australia. Mr Hanson picked me and my two sisters up from the airport which was so kind. He looked after us very well. Thank you!
      It again was such a blessing to go to ECHO. I learned to love working hard alongside other brothers and sister in Christ and I still enjoy doing that very much at working bee’s at our church camp here in Australia. Our whole family has many many great memories from ECHO and I want to thank you Mr Hanson for putting so much time into organizing these trips!

  3. Hayley August 7, 2015 at 11:38 am #

    It’s been around 13 years since I was at ECHO last but some of the memories are still fresh. Mr. Hanson reading the same scripture passage every morning for two weeks, if I’m not mistaken it was “I have fought the good fight…” I still hear his voice in my head every time I read that.

    I have a little funny memory of you James- on our way to Florida, we all stopped for ice cream (I think it was called scoops) and you said “here’s the scoop guys” pun intended.

    -Hayley (Hosford) Smith

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