How Maranatha Volunteers International influenced the lives of two of its supporters.
Dina Ramirez remembers the moment the emptiness started. She was 17 years old, and despite having been raised in a loving Seventh-day Adventist home, new relationships had begun to pull her away from God. When she graduated from high school, things only got worse. She started working full-time while attending school and became too busy to go to church. She could feel her faith slipping away. The emptiness was enveloping her life, and she knew something needed to change.
Then, in an instant, everything did change. Dina was pregnant.
“At 21, when I got the news that I was going to be a mom, I knew that this was a lifetime commitment,” Dina says. “I knew there’s no going back. You are responsible for this precious baby that God is blessing you with. You’re responsible for teaching this baby everything. What morals are you going to teach, what values are you going to instill in this child, what behavior are you going to model for this child?”
After her son, Seth, arrived, Dina’s priorities and values shifted — she returned to God. “When I had Seth in my arms, there is nothing I wouldn’t do to give my life for this baby,” Dina says. “That made me realize firsthand, God, You love me because You allowed me to experience this love — that I would be willing to die for this child, and You died for me.”
When Seth was a toddler, Dina became a single mother, inducing new challenges. From financial worries to child care to transportation, juggling life as a solo parent while working full-time proved distressing. How would she provide for everything her little family needed? How would she pay for child care on one income? In the early years, feelings of inadequacy and loneliness crept in. Then, as Seth grew older, Dina also considered the spiritual duty to Seth and how she would answer for his faith development. How would she raise him to embody the love of Christ? What kind of relationship would he have with Jesus? Would he leave the church as some young people do? Would he be prepared for eternity?
Ironically, it was Seth himself who brought forward a remedy for these concerns. In the third grade, his school sponsored a “Week of Prayer” series focused on a topic that instantly captivated him: missions. Each day he came home from school telling his mom about different heroes of the mission field in Africa or India, fascinated by their stories of adventure and service. “I want to be a missionary too!” he said.
Observing his growing interest, Dina saturated him with mission resources in the form of books, audio narratives, and even Maranatha Volunteers International’s television program, Maranatha Mission Stories. She figured he’d either be encouraged further or the phase would run its course. Seth couldn’t get enough.
“I really want to be a missionary,” he said. “I want to do this. This is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to serve God this way.”
Then, one Saturday (Sabbath) in church, two young women shared their experience of going on a mission trip with Maranatha. Dina and Seth were mesmerized. During the presentation, Seth looked up into Dina’s eyes and said, “Mom, I want to go. I want to go on a mission trip.” At that moment, she made him a promise.
“I promise you, one day, I don’t know when, but one day, we will go,” Dina said. “One day, God will provide a way for us to go on a family mission trip, just you and me. We will go.”
Dina made good on that promise in 2013 when they traveled to Panama for one of Maranatha’s annual Family Projects. For Seth, it was a surreal moment to realize that his dream was coming true — he was going to the mission field. His happiness was uncontainable. “Mom, we’re actually going on a mission trip. This is really happening!” he said. Looking at her son across the worksite each day throughout the project, Seth’s permanent smile told Dina that this is where God wanted them.
She was fulfilled too. More than just a volunteer opportunity, the trip was an introduction to the power that missions offered in the spiritual and emotional development of her son. The connection to God and the lessons they experienced together on a mission trip could be transferred back home.
“I learned that I can continue to teach Seth and model that behavior, model that relationship [with God],” Dina says. “What does it look like, what does prayer look like, what does your time with God look like? [The trip] definitely changed me, and it changed Seth because he was able to see God firsthand in a way that he had not seen [before].”
Although they returned home from that first trip with a new perspective, life still presented its challenges. Being a single parent continued to be hard for Dina. Providing for the family, being the emotional cornerstone for her son, and coordinating logistics for child care, transportation, and extracurricular activities was overwhelming at times.
When the day-to-day was challenging, Dina set her sights on the next Maranatha Family Project as a future reprieve. She looked forward to the change of pace and renewal she knew it would provide and considered it a sacred opportunity to connect with her son around service.
In 2014, Dina and Seth planned on volunteering with Maranatha in the Dominican Republic. They registered for the project, purchased airline tickets, and counted down the days. But taking a child out of the country requires notarized consent from both parents, and this year, Seth’s father refused to sign the paperwork, no matter how hard she pleaded. Devastated, she realized they couldn’t go.
“That was hard, having to put it in nice words, when I had just told [Seth], ‘We’re going to go, I have the airfare, it’s paid for. I have the time off from work; it’s going to be amazing, it’s going to be fun.’ His little dreams were shattered.”
By the time Dina and Seth made it back on a Family Project the following year, Dina was at a low point. The constant struggle of single motherhood had taken its toll. She limped into that mission trip in 2015, desperate to connect with God. Despite her outward smile, no one knew how tough the year had been.
After worship one evening, the project’s coordinator, Steve Case, pulled Dina aside to ask how she was doing. Fearing she might become emotional, she simply replied that she was good. Case said, “How are you really doing?”
“I don’t know what he saw,” Dina says. “Maybe he saw something in me. I like to believe that it was the Holy Spirit that was prompting him to come talk to me and pray for me, because then he asked me, ‘Can I pray for you?’ ”
After bottling up the tension for so long, the tears came. As Case prayed, Dina felt God speaking to her. “He said, ‘It’s going to be OK, Dina. It’s not always going to be this hard. You’re not always going to struggle this much being a single mom. It’s going to be OK. Trust Me. Continue to believe in Me. Continue to put Me as a priority in your life. You will see how I can bless you, how I can bless your family, how I can bless Seth. You will see the young man he will become.’ ”
Each year since that prayer, Dina has seen its promise on display as Seth grew into adolescence. The two began volunteering on Maranatha’s teens-only mission trip for high schoolers, the Ultimate Workout. She watched as Seth observed the relationship between volunteer Dan Klein Jr. and his son, commenting how he wanted to be a strong father like Dan. She noticed the conversations Seth had with Brandon Westgate, the project spiritual coordinator, showing him how relatable pastors can be. Dina observed her son, a shy kid by nature, coming out of his shell as he worked alongside other teenagers. She glimpsed him learning the value of hard work, gaining lifelong friends, and growing closer to God.
Seth is now 19 and realizes the sacrifices his mom made to make missions a part of his upbringing. He recognizes now that she sometimes went without, so she could give what he needed. He knows what an impact this life of missions has meant for his faith. “I wouldn’t be as close to God as I am now,” Seth says. “Any experience with God draws you closer, but a mission experience provides a one-on-one connection that is more personal.”
Reflecting on her youth, Dina realizes the vastly different place she was in at Seth’s age. “I compared my teen years and his teen years,” Dina says. “What I can say is I know with certainty, I have no doubt in my mind, that going on mission trips has strengthened his faith in God, his personal relationship with God. He encountered Jesus as I had never encountered Him at that young age.”
Seeing the example his mom set throughout his childhood, Seth wants to follow in her footsteps in creating a solid spiritual foundation for his future family. He knows it’s not uncommon for young people to leave the church and has made a point to set his long-term priorities now. “I want to raise my family to be strong Seventh-day Adventists,” Seth says. “I wouldn’t want to be another statistic. [Missions] provide an eye-opening way to get close to God.”
“He thanked me for raising him the way I raised him,” Dina says. “Teaching him about faith, teaching him to make God a priority, and teaching him to know Jesus and love Jesus. He sees the difference between him and his friends. He sees the difference, and he knows he’s different, not in a bad way, in a good way, because his priorities are different. He reminded me that going on these mission trips helped him set his priorities in order. You serve God first. You dedicate your life to him. And he thanked me. He thanked me for dedicating my life and his life to God in missions.”
For Dina, these mission trips have sustained her through the tumultuous journey of parenthood. She has formed friendships so close, she now considers them family. She feels the support of a loving faith community spread out around the world, bound together by service. She knows that no matter the obstacles life throws at her, she is not alone. She also credits missions with bringing her and her son closer together. She hopes more parents will follow her lead.
“Start saving, start planning, make mission trips in your family a priority, because the returns you get are incalculable,” Dina says. “You cannot see and count all the blessings that you will have as a family. You will be more united; you will have that bond that you don’t create or forge any other way. You create lifelong friendships. Your kids can grow up on those friendships that don’t just last on that one mission trip; they will last for eternity. And you yourself will be impacted by it. You will be changed.”
The original version of this story appeared in issue 2, 2021, of Maranatha Volunteers International’s The Volunteer magazine.