Peirce Baehr ’03 still recalls the group of atheists from Italy who showed up at the weekly dinners his family hosts in a “beautiful valley at the bottom of the world.” Over the course of three months with Pilgrim Hill, the Baehrs’ hostel ministry in Tasmania’s Huon Valley, the group’s most vocal member went from lambasting the damage Christians had done to science and art over the centuries to wanting to read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.
“Our goal is to wake our lost friends up,” says Peirce. “To give people a taste for something true and a distaste for what is false, so that taste would stick with them long after they’re gone.” Peirce is one of many alumni involved in missions to the world’s travelers who were inspired by Wheaton College’s Youth Hostel Ministry (YHM). Now approaching its golden anniversary, YHM has seen more than 600 students over five decades spend their summers participating in interpersonal evangelism among the hostels of Europe, and increasingly, the world.
The success of YHM was born out of its founder’s failure.
Traveling in Spain with the College's Student Missionary Project (SMP, now Student Ministry Partners) summer program, Leland Howard ’72 stayed at a hostel and became fast friends with a British student. Before parting the next day, they talked about everything under the sun—except Jesus.
“The irony of that,” says Leland, a missionary kid raised in Ecuador. “I had gone to Europe to be a missionary, and I had never shared Christ.”
From his remorse and self-reflection was born a vision to reach an unreached people group. “I realized there were thousands of students around the world backpacking through Europe,” he says. “These were people who were lonely and bored, had time on their hands, and were open to deep conversations.”
Many professors and campus leaders thought his idea was a waste of money and time. But by his graduation, Leland had inspired enough people to take 15 students in three teams to Europe to make his vision a reality.
He insisted on co-ed teams, inspired by Francis Schaeffer’s The Mark of the Christian, believing the “relationships between team members would be a powerful corroborating witness giving validity to our verbal witness.” Also inspired by Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, Leland insisted on no canned gospel presentations, but advised students to instead first listen to people and learn their worldview.
Case in point: After an hours-long discussion with an American student in Munich about the church, Leland invited the student to dinner where he let his team members take over sharing their faith. Afterward, the student told him, “I really believe that what you have told me is true.” Leland was proud of how logical and persuasive he had been, until the student continued, “I believe that because I see the way you treat each other as a team.”
“That underlined what my hope was,” says Leland of YHM. “That we as a team sharing Christian life with one another would be a witness to those around us.” Today, students spend the first half of their summer of YHM traveling across hostels, and the second half stationed at a specific Christian hostel. This past summer, YHM had teams in Amsterdam, Norway, and Spain. It also expanded to Mexico City, thanks to Cynthia Ramirez Martinez ’08, who opened a Christian hostel there after catching the vision for the mission field during her own YHM experience.
This coming summer, YHM plans to add a New Zealand partner. And in the future, Assistant Director of Summer Programs Corrie Johnson ’96 expects partnerships in Central and South America and South Asia via the RIVER, a global network of Christian hostels.
“YHM uniquely offers Wheaton students face-to-face opportunities to engage young sojourners just like themselves through courageous communication, in both word and deed, of the saving and redeeming power of the gospel,” says Yulee Lee, the new director of the Office of Christian Outreach. “The challenge of intentionally living out our faith and participating in the advancement of God’s kingdom within the transient global community creates a beautiful space for the reciprocal transformation of host and guest.”
While backpacking through Europe may sound like a glamorous calling, the ministry notes on its website that many YHM participants agree it “marks their single biggest trial in life. Hardly any find it easy or luxurious.”
Participants “meet countless people with all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs, and they have to decide whether they still believe that Jesus is the truth,” says this past year’s YHM chair, C. J. Heck ’18. “Even more challenging, they have to be able to communicate why they believe he is the truth.”
“You feel all you’ve done is planted seeds, and you wonder what you’ve accomplished,” says Leland. “It sounds great to travel Europe. But it wasn’t an easy task, and it could be discouraging.” However, many YHM alumni have gone on to make such ministry their full-time calling.
For example, Peirce has spent the past four years hosting dinners for up to 80 people from 55 countries during the harvest seasons in the Huon Valley, where many youth worldwide come to take advantage of the Australian government’s work-stay offer of a two-year residency in exchange for 88 days of farm work. The meals are free and feature a gospel discussion.
“As George Grant notes in Bringing in the Sheaves,” says Peirce, “people are more willing to consider a need they didn’t realize they had—the gospel—when you can meet practical needs they know they have: warm hospitality, a good meal, safety, and genuine friendship.”
Faith Wen Walter ’97 has found the same to be true as her family has offered hospitality for four years at the end of one of the world’s most famous traveling routes: the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain.
Located in Santiago de Compostela, their Pilgrim House welcome center is a place where pilgrims can take care of practical needs while processing their thoughts and prayers along their now completed journey. “We believe that travel—especially in the form of pilgrimage—is a profound way of engaging the heart and recognizing God’s hand in our lives,” she says.
In contrast to YHM, half of the pilgrims are 35 to 65 years old, says Faith. “So they’re older, more mature, and reflecting on much more life experience. Many are in a place of transition and reflection, or closing out one chapter and beginning another.” The conversations are more serious and deep than the ones she had as a 20-year-old student, but it’s the same incarnational model of ministry she learned on YHM.
“As my wife Christina says, ministry to travelers is like scattering seed from a moving train,” says Peirce. “But it’s definitely God’s work, beginning to end. He brings the guests to us; he loves them even more than we do; and we trust him that he knows exactly what they need next in their journey.”