Keene, a Cornell University graduate student, traces the roots of his 3,500-mile journey to a trip to Central America when he taught English and agriculture to children of poor farmers.
"It just kind of hit me then that with children, when they're having a tough time, it's not their fault," Keene said of the experience as an undergraduate at the University of Florida. "They don't have any more responsibility for the ridiculous challenges of their lives than I do for the blessings of mine."
Coupled with working at Southern Baptist churches in children's ministry, Keene felt God developing his heart to serve orphans. That brought him into contact with the Global Orphan Project (also known as the GO Project), a Christian ministry that supports local church-owned orphanages around the world.
After a visit to the GO Project in Haiti, Keene knew he wanted to help their ministry in some way. Since his graduate school thesis involves interviewing students and teachers, he reasoned he could do that while walking across the country and sharing about orphans.
He's logged more than 1,600 miles so far on the journey that began in Miami on Jan. 28 en route to San Francisco, speaking with an estimated 25,000 people in schools, churches and residences.
"When I speak to groups and when I preach to churches, I don't really talk too much about the walk," Keene said. "It's not about the walk, and it's not about me. ... It's about the fact that God desires to use us despite the fact that we're sinful and selfish and vile. He desires to use us to serve His children and to transform our hearts through that."
Along the way, the Lord has provided for his needs. Company sponsorships took care of his food and equipment, and his friends bought him a support van they take turns driving. Families, including non-Christian ones, continue to open their homes to him, sparking opportunities to share why he's on this journey.
" adopts us as His sons and daughters, and how beautiful that is for us to be able to serve children here on earth and to really be able to bring glory to God in that," Keene said.
Keene looks forward to returning to Haiti and seeing the orphans who are so close to his heart, knowing they will have no idea what he's done, which "doesn't matter."
"It's not about me," he said. "It's not about someone walking across the country. It's not even about the GO Project. It's about them having what they need to sleep and to eat and to be cared for."
That's where Jake Bareth comes in. A former worship leader and staff member at a Miami Southern Baptist congregation, Life Church. Bareth serves as the Haiti field director for the GO Project, overseeing the organization's orphanage partnerships.
Bareth described orphans in Haiti as among the lowest in an already impoverished society. With no state-provided education or medical care, many orphans end up in gangs or performing menial tasks to survive. Compounded with the trauma of the January 2011 earthquake, the life of an orphan can leave deep psychological scars.
"No orphan has a happy story," Bareth said. "They've all been through tremendously traumatic events that have caused them to end up in one of our orphan villages."
One child would wake up screaming every night from a nightmare that his father, who died in the earthquake, was beating him. Other children at the orphanages hoard food, clothes and shoes out of a street mentality of not knowing where the next day's necessities will come from.
"One thing that we say a lot is God designed the family; He didn't design the orphanage," Bareth said. "This is our best effort to take care of these kids, and we know that this is not the best place for them. But yet God still works in their hearts and God still repairs them and brings them joy and happiness."
Bareth warns that if the church fails in its God-given mission to care for orphaned children, the consequences will be more than just the disappointment of failure.
"It's not like, 'Well, we dropped the ball on that one, so oh well, we'll just go back to doing our Wednesday night worship service,'" he said. "If we drop the ball on this, real lives are at stake. These are real kids."
Sparks and Sartin are serving in a partnership involving the church, InSight Ministries and an International Mission Board student missions initiative called OneLife.
"I had never really thought about doing missions," Sparks said. "I'm an engineering student, so it was just never really on my radar."
But after a mission trip last summer to Papua New Guinea, he sought another place to serve this summer and was connected with the opportunity in Zimbabwe. It marks a change since his early days in college when he was pursuing an engineering degree out of a desire to make money.
"Maybe as I've matured and grown older in college I've realized that there are other things that are much more important than that," Sparks said.
Meanwhile, Sartin was ecstatic when he found out he would be helping orphans. Having worked with children during high school, he developed a heart for children with dysfunctional or absent families. And he has a personal connection.
"Due to the fact that I too have lost a parent (my dad died in 2007), I have a point of common ground with these kids that some people do not have," he told Baptist Press in an email.
While he and Sparks are now in Zimbabwe serving, he told Baptist Press before he left that he was looking forward to one thing in particular.
"God is going to do amazing things, and He is allowing me the chance to be a part of it," he said. "God has glorified Himself and will glorify Himself."
John Evans is a freelance writer based in Houston. For more information about Barrett Keene's walk across America, visit www.gowalkamerica.org. For more information about opportunities for students through the International Mission Board, visit www.onelifematters.org.
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