Olivia’s Story – Planting Seeds in Northern Ireland

After a short mission trip to Northern Ireland a few years ago, Olivia Portwood found herself drawn back to share the love of God with the people of this region.

As God faithfully opened the door for her to return to this mission field, she learned that the journey isn’t always easy. But with a willing heart and faithful obedience to God’s calling, she continued to share her story, planting seeds along the way.

And while we don’t always see the fruit right away, God will often use those experiences to plant seeds and produce growth in our own lives as well. Even when things seem to be going less than ideal, God can still shine His light through you and touch lives through our faithfulness in following Him.

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:16

From Olivia:

I’m a sucker for a good story. Some people measure their worth in likes and followers, others in dollars and cents, but my scale weighs experiences. I love a good story—or, even better, a good storyteller. All my friends are ordinary people who happen to be magical storytellers. I have never been a great storyteller. I guess that’s why I need stories remarkable enough to hold their own weight regardless of the storyteller’s merit. 

I should introduce myself—that’s how stories begin. I’m Olivia Portwood, a nineteen-year-old college student, avid reader and writer, serial weirdo with a perfectionist gene tied in a paradox, and major nerd. I was a pastor’s kid for seventeen years, but now it’s just me and God in our weird, extraordinary relationship.

About two years ago, I returned from my first brief mission trip to Dundrum, Northern Ireland. God, my best friend, told me that I should go back to Dundrum someday. He told me that if I went back, I would not make a monumental, headline-worthy difference that washes away in a month; but that I would plant a tiny seed. One that would grow something new in myself, and maybe in the communities I touched, too.

So, I listened. God knew he only wanted me there for four months, but I am a sucker for a good story, remember.

How cool does it sound to spend a year in Ireland? I wanted a year. Ten months. Six months. I like when numbers get bigger; why shouldn’t time work the same? But God…He always knows best, because I am thankful now, that I am right where I need to be in my hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, USA. 

I had fundraised enough for three months, but one of the two organizations I partnered with asked for more time. They wanted me to stay through December 13. I was only able to financially comply with their request through the generosity of the Kim Usery foundation’s co-founders, Melvin and Lisa Usery, who generously covered the remaining time I needed.

On August 27, 2019, after calling the UK Visa and Immigration Office fifteen times (at £2.00 a minute!) inquiring about my passport and visa, I was able to take off for Northern Ireland!

I stayed at the mission house/hostel right next to the very youth center I had been a part of during my first trip. The RIOT (Revival In Our Town) youth center was not an intensive obligation; it was my Tuesday nights, Friday nights, and weekends in the form of Bible studies, card games, Mario-Kart races, and tea and biscuits. It was my “home life” during my life abroad; although, it had the professional expectations of a job, even in the small moments, that could be overwhelming.

It was through the RIOT manager and founder that I connected with Crown Jesus Ministries, an organization in Belfast that required MUCH more of my time and energy. Including a daily hour-long commute both ways, the office days were 9-5, with frequent trips to schools across the island for assemblies and programs.

Primary schools (elementary schools) involved a fun puppet production that required weeks of training to memorize the cues, routines, and songs. There were also after-school clubs that were more personal and hands-on: crafts, games, a brief lesson, and dances. Secondary schools (middle/high schools) were much harder—they were mostly small talk. The year-long internship that Crown Jesus offers allows interns to create their own series, topics, lectures, and games. But my internship did not extend into that period. I was merely a participant and facilitator in preexisting programs; although, my individuality and creativity did have its moment to shine.

My sole project was a spoken-word testimony that I performed in two secondary schools. A “testimony” is a person’s story of how God became their friend and “had their back,” in their own words.

As a freelancing poet, I was moved to write my version of God’s work in my life as a poem that I could perform in front of the secondary students. It was an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. I also made friends along the way. Children’s ministry is simple; you are a friend the moment you walk in the door with a puppet or a dance.

However, teens are harder to get close with. They want to actually be friends with you; they don’t want to be your ministry project or fixer upper. They are not a box to be checked off on your good-person to-do list. You have to talk to them in a kind, friendly way, and yet encourage them to think.

My goal with every teen was for them to ask themselves if they knew true joy in their lives, and how to pursue it. There were people I genuinely enjoyed talking to about movies, school, and work. Plus, there were other interns alongside me. Six other Northern Irish teens were accepted into the Crown Jesus Ministry Program, so they walked with me through that aspect.

There was only one intern who was in the exact same internship I was: my roommate, a fellow RIOT and Crown Jesus intern, AND a fellow American taking a gap year abroad. I still talk to two girls from Crown Jesus and my fellow American intern to this day; our friendship truly changed the way I love on the people that I used to take for granted in my home life.

There were a few special events I took part in: mostly 1WAY’s, hosted by Crown Jesus in schools and youth clubs across the island. They involved a drama production (that every intern took part in), a worship band, games, a lecture, videos, and more, with over 200 school kids present.

However, most of my day-to-day life was simple. I rode the bus. I planned meals. I did laundry. I went to the office and had meetings. I babysat my sponsor’s kids while he and his wife walked through cancer together. I went to church. I took part in a prayer ministry course. I tried to connect to my life back home. And I hung out and watched movies with my friends.

It was not glamorous in the slightest. I suffered from burnout, depression, sickness and fatigue (including a double ear infection!), and tension between me and other interns or people in my life. I missed my family. My relationship with God was put through the wringer. And there were days I was too tired to move. But there were still wonderful memories (like when I visited the amazing, historic landmark known as Giant’s Causeway!)

My internship taught me how attainable even the craziest dreams are. And how unique my normal can become without compromising my identity. It also taught me to appreciate the number of humans alive in every country on Earth: 7,000,000,000+.

I have walked through daily life with people from a different land, under a different government, in the midst of a different culture. And they were just kind people who wanted to be my friend. Life abroad is just that: life. Dreams are just how we aspire to live our lives for a period.

Without the kindness and generosity of the Kim Usery Foundation, my life would not have gone how I aspired it to, and my internship would not have reached fruition. For that, I owe it all to Lisa and Melvin. Thank you.