Sarah Imperiale never imagined herself as a Christian missionary.
Not unlike other so-called "PKs" (preacher’s kids), Imperiale describes her younger self as being unsettled, a troublemaker and not at all a devoted, churchgoing believer.
After earning her associate degree in American Sign Language at Salt Lake Community College in 2012, the graduate wanted to get out of the country, but couldn’t find any program that appealed to her.
Then Imperiale discovered The World Race, an interdenominational effort that sends young Christians to 11 countries in 11 months to serve the poor as Jesus commanded.
"I talked to my mom about it and gave her every reason why I shouldn’t go," the 24-year-old recalls. "Normally, she sides with me. But this time, [my mother] said, ‘Would you just shut up and go?’ "
Before she knew it, Imperiale had signed up for the trip.
Imperiale’s father, the Rev. Mike Imperiale of Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church, was stunned.
His daughter had the stamina and compassion for it, Pastor Mike knew, but he was unfamiliar with the organization behind these world travels, so fatherly worries set in.
The World Race began in January 2006 as part of an Atlanta-based organization called Adventures in Missions, which has sent more than 100,000 volunteers from various churches and backgrounds all over the globe on missions of varying lengths.
The 11-month program is a "raw adventure in faith," organizers write on the website. "It facilitates discipleship through the process of discovering the abundant life [God] promised."
The program guarantees that young Americans — it’s open to those between ages 21 and 35 — will confront hunger and need as they build partnerships with Christian ministries across the world.
"We’re calling you out of your comfort zone," organizers write, "and giving you exposure to what God is doing in the world before you commit to the American dream."
Adventures in Missions sponsors six programs, but The World Race is by far the "biggest and most popular," says Suzy Hachey, the group’s sales and recruiting coordinator, who did the race in 2012.
Participants are divided into teams of about seven people who live and work together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They must have "good attitudes, limited emotional baggage and a willingness to change."
The experience produces "so much personal growth," says Hachey, as participants "learn to live with others, to deal with conflicts and to overcome cultural and language barriers."
All that sounded like a remarkable opportunity for Sarah, says her mother, Dottie Imperiale, but her daughter still had some anxieties.
"I think she was scared to death," says the clear-eyed mom, who is a hospice social worker. "She worried about the food, the travel and the pressures of living in such a tight community."
In the end, none of those was a problem during the nearly yearlong journey, Dottie Imperiale says. Sarah thrived in the experience and the community.
Plus, it lifted the young introvert’s faith to a new level.
"God became real to Sarah," her mother says, "maybe for the first time."
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