“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.