Roanoke student pioneers church building project in Nicaragua

Nick Varrell (middle) plays with Nicaraguan children during a Roanoke College service trip.

Nick Varrell (middle) plays with Nicaraguan children during a Roanoke College service trip.

Imagine spearheading a project to build a church for a village when you are only 20 years old.

Nick Varrell, a junior at Roanoke College, and two other Roanoke students will be traveling to Nicaragua from Jan. 3 to Jan. 11 to build a church for members of a small rural community called La Enramada.

The three-person team is made up of Varrell, Lauren Harris '16 and Mollie Gleason '14. Both Varrell and Harris speak Spanish and will be able to communicate with the Nicaraguans, but Gleason will have to rely heavily on her teammates for translation.

Varrell, who is from Holliston, Mass., is a seasoned overseas volunteer. He has spent the last two summers in Costa Rica as an intern with Strong Missions, a Christian organization that seeks to help Costa Ricans gain the basic resources necessary for a healthy life. He has also taken several alternative break trips to Nicaragua with Roanoke College groups led by Jesse Griffin, who is director of the center for civic engagement at the College.

"I feel like I owe Jesse a lot for opening my eyes to that community," Varrell said. "The people are amazing there."

When Varrell was in Nicaragua with a Roanoke College group during the spring of 2012, a group of women from the village of La Enramada approached him.

The women explained that in order to get to church they had to walk three miles each way and cross a river twice. They told him they had heard about his dedicated service in Costa Rica and asked him if he could build them a church in their community.

Humbled and overwhelmed with the desire to help, Varrell told the women that he would see what he could do when he got back to the states. Later, when a representative from Nicaragua contacted Varrell and told him that the church had acquired land for a new building, he thought, "This is going to happen."

Over the past few months, Varrell has been communicating with contacts in Nicaragua to plan the trip. He has had to tackle challenges, such as fundraising for the project, designing the building, purchasing supplies and planning where the team will stay.

Griffin expressed full confidence in Varrell's ability to lead this trip.

"Nick doesn't get rattled. When it comes to leading groups that is a real advantage," Griffin said. "He is a consistent stable guy, and he can roll with any punches that are thrown his way."

During their time in Nicaragua, the group will be staying with the same families that Griffin's group stays with during the official Roanoke College trips. There will be no indoor plumbing and unreliable electricity, but Griffin said living with the Nicaraguans will be a rewarding experience, especially with the small size of the team.

"Their relationship building, which is always the most magical, moving part of the whole experience, will be even greater because they will have so much contact," Griffin said. "One of the things that they will get from this experience is a really super intimate experience that is so not touristic."

Varrell estimates that the trip will cost approximately $900 per person, and the expense for the building project will be a total of $4500. Within his projected budget, he has planned for the cost of building supplies and the salary to hire a local foreman to oversee the project.

The dimensions of the church building will be about 8 meters by 13 meters, which is about 26 feet by 43 feet. The church should accommodate about 40 people at one time.

Varrell has spent countless hours planning this trip, and he clearly has a passion for the people of La Enramada.

"I love the community, and I want to serve them," said Varrell. "The success of this project is really important for my long term work there. I am hoping on this trip to convey my vision for the impact that I want to try to have on the area."

After graduation, Varrell, who is double majoring in Spanish and Criminal Justice at Roanoke, will spend a full year in Costa Rica working with Strong Missions, and then will go to Nicaragua to plant a new branch of Strong Missions. His trip in January will allow him to continue to build relationships with native Nicaraguans.

"The big point for me is sharing God's love with the people of the community and making them understand that there are people and forces that care for them and that they are not alone," he said.

-Published Dec. 19, 2013

Released: December 19, 2013