Little Falls girl joins mission trip to Macedonia

Sarah Branchaud, 17, said she would love to return

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Sarah Branchaud, 17, recently traveled to Macedonia with Ambassadors In Missions (AIM). She was one of about 20 people, all from Minnesota who went to experience the people, the culture and to help others grow in their faith, while helping themselves to grow, too.

The travel time from Minnesota to Macedonia took about 30 hours. The group was traveling from June 11 – 20.

When Branchaud, who lives in Little Falls, arrived she said she was surprised.

“I expected Macedonia to be a desert,” she said. “But it was green and mountainous.”

The Republic of Macedonia is situated north of Greece and east of Albania on the Balkan peninsula. It received its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The capital and largest city is Skopje with a population of more than 500,000. There are a little more than two million people in the entire country.

While in Skopje, Macedonia, Sarah Branchaud, left, Little Falls, stopped to enjoy the scenery with her friend from Foley, Emma VonWald.

While in Skopje, Macedonia, Sarah Branchaud, left, Little Falls, stopped to enjoy the scenery with her friend from Foley, Emma VonWald.

The country is landlocked with more than 50 lakes and 16 mountains higher than 6,562 feet.

The name Macedonia means tall and tapered. It is originally attributed to mean highlanders or “tall ones.”

This was Branchaud’s first mission trip and because she had such a fulfilling experience, she hopes it won’t be her last.

“I had a hard time deciding whether to go to Guatemala or to Macedonia,” she said. When she learned a friend from Foley was also considering Macedonia, that cinched it for both of them.

Much of the group’s time in the small Balkan country was spent in outreach programs. Branchaud said to entertain the children of the area, the AIM group would set up a carnival atmosphere with games, face painting, soccer and basketball plus the girls on the trip did the hair and nails of the young Macedonians.

“The local pastor was not hopeful that many young people would come to our outreach programs,” said Branchaud. “But, on the first day, more than 100 came.”

She said not many of the people the group encountered spoke very good English.

“We used lots of gesturing,” she said. “Our mission leader, Brian Thomas, was our interpreter. Plus we did skits to get across our message of God’s love.”

AIM’s skits talked about temptations, what to avoid and how Jesus makes people whole.

“The people  we spent time with were not sure what to do with the idea of Christianity,” said Branchaud. “We met a young person who had accepted Christianity, but said his parents had asked him to leave the home because they did not approve.”

While the group was in Skopje, they did outreach programs for adults. They spent their days handing out flyers and their evenings working to break down the barriers that were all too prevalent.

“It was the first time there was a mission trip in Skopje and each night the number of people who attended grew,” Branchaud said. “On the last night, 400 people came.”

During an altar call, Branchaud said that 30 people came up to give their life to Jesus. They had never been done before and she said it was a huge success.

Two days were spent in two poor villages: Shutka, meaning “garbage,” and Negotina, both homes to the Romani.

“The Romani are a different ethnic group from the Macedonians,” said Branchaud. “They are poorer, illiterate and the two groups don’t socialize.”

But, Branchaud said that during one of AIM’s carnivals, they all seemed to get along fine.

“It was good to see,” she said.

Except for not speaking much English, it was not much different than being in the U.S. Branchaud said most people dressed in jeans and T-shirts and all the young people had cellphones.

The AIM group had some free time and part of that was spent in Greece. On one side trip, they went to Philippi, Greece, near the Aegean Sea, where the apostle Paul visited several times during his travels. They also saw the jail where he was allegedly incarcerated with Silas plus the Gangites River where he baptized Lydia and her family.
Branchaud said she was also baptized in the same river during the trip.

The AIM group also traveled to the Aegean Sea for some swimming.

Branchaud said the food was incredible. Her favorites included the very fresh salads and the chicken stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon.

“I tried drinkable yogurt, but it tasted like sour milk,” she said. “That I didn’t like.”

Branchaud said she found the country to be spiritually dry and sometimes hard to feel God’s presence. But in the evenings, when the group was praying, his presence would return and what she felt was unexplainable.

“This was an amazing experience,” she said. “I learned to be closer to God and to grow in my faith.”

Many of the students blogged during the trip. Their thoughts can be found at www.minnesotaaim.com.

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