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Praying for passports: Long waits add to mission trip stress


Five days before a mission trip to Mexico, members of the Sycamore View church in Memphis, Tenn., were short a few passports — 25, to be exact.
The 42 campaigners mailed their applications in April, more than 12 weeks before their scheduled trip to Casa de la Esperanza, a home for orphaned and abandoned children in Anahuac, Mexico.
But the campaigners — like church members across the nation — got lost in the flood of applications received by the U.S. government since new travel rules went into effect in January.
Passports are now required for reentry after flights from Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico.
For the Sycamore View team, those flights were booked and nonrefundable.
Passports are now required for reentry after flights from Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico.
For the Sycamore View team, those flights were booked and nonrefundable.
“‘Extremely concerned’ is probably an understatement. ‘Freaking out’ is probably a little better,” said Jim Hinkle, the church’s youth
minister, describing his emotions in the days before the trip.
Hinkle and fellow church members called the passport agency, Homeland Security and anyone they could think of who might be able to help.
“I had a lot of faith that God was going to work it out,” he said. “I also know that God teaches some of his best lessons through disappointment. I really had begun to think that disappointment was the lesson we were going to learn.”
SURVIVING THE LONG WAIT
In March, the State Department warned that its 17 passport agencies were receiving more than 1 million applications each month, far greater than the expected rush after the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was passed in 2004. Between October 2006 and April 2007, the State Department issued 8.6 million passports — more than any year before 2003, according to news reports.
The State Department offers expedited passport service for an additional $60, promising a passport in two to three weeks instead of the average 10 to 12 weeks. One of the Sycamore View campaigners chose to expedite, but still waited eight weeks to receive his passport, Hinkle said.
Several visa and passport services, including VisaHQ.com, offer next-day services for additional fees in excess of $150. But these services warn that they can’t speed up passport applications that already have been submitted.
Some church members turned to elected officials for help. The youth minister and a teenager at the Auburn, Ala., church didn’t have their passports days before a mission trip to Honduras, said Mary Brinkerhoff, activities coordinator for the church’s campus ministry.
“Honestly, if it had not been for a close friend who is the executive assistant for one of our Alabama congressmen in Washington, we would have never gotten them in time,” Brinkerhoff said.
Other church members weren’t so lucky. Two of 12 students on a campaign to Germany missed their flights because of passport delays, said trip coordinator Stefanie Anderson, a member of the Memorial Road church in Oklahoma City.
The students arrived in Germany a week later, after borrowing more than $650 each to change their airline tickets, Anderson said.
“I’m sorry that we had this experience,” she said, “but we at least have some firsthand stories to share with future campaigners to
encourage them to apply early.”
A LAST-MINUTE ANSWER TO PRAYERS
Two days before the Mexico trip, after hundreds of hours on the phone and in prayer, the Sycamore View team had received only a few additional passports, Hinkle said. Then the State Department announced that it would waive the travel restrictions through Sept. 30. The church members needed only to show a receipt that they had applied for a passport to enter Mexico.
“We just prayed the law into change,” Hinkle told the team members.
The trip wasn’t without troubles. One ticket agent didn’t know about the new exception and kept six team members from boarding the plane. Instead, they flew to El Paso, Texas, and drove through the Mexico border, where passports are not yet required. The church members flew back home without incident.
When the team finally arrived at Casa de la Esperanza, “it was amazing,” Hinkle said. “Over 11 years of youth ministry, I’ve had the opportunity to go to a lot of different places. Spiritually and organizationally, this may be the best place I’ve ever been.”

Filed under: National

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