It had only been a few weeks since Rob Thompson joined Linwood Community Church as a youth pastor in 1996 when he was asked by the church to take part in a missionary trip to Haiti.
He complied but had no premonition that an encounter with the poorest county in the Western Hemisphere would have a profound effect on his life.
Since that initial trip to Haiti, Thompson has revisited the country roughly a dozen times.
In March, he and his family will move there to serve as missionaries.
"Talk about life transformation," said Thompson, who currently lives in Lehigh Acres, Fla. "My life hasn't been the same since."
Thompson now works with Reciprocal Ministries Inter-national, an organization that develops partnerships between churches located in the United States and Haiti.
Linwood Community Church for the better part of 20 years has had a sister church in Haiti that it visits annually, which is an effort that coincides with the church's focus on supporting missionary work.
About 30 percent of the budget for Linwood Community Church is dedicated to helping missionaries throughout the world, the Rev. Rick John said.
Church's 75th anniversary
The church invited all of its missionary organizations, 52 total, to Linwood for a weeklong conference it is hosting starting Sunday. The aim of the conference is to give the missionaries an opportunity to meet the congregation, exchange encouragement and mark the church's 75th anniversary.
Commitments came from 28 organizations, which far exceeded the church's expectations.
"We never dreamed that would happen," said Ruth Lane, one of the organizers of the conference.
Some missionaries are coming from other states, while some are traveling from as far as Scotland, England, Germany and Africa, and will be staying in the homes of church members. Day trips will be mixed in among meetings and special events, such as a sermon Oct. 24 from the Rev. Thomas Simcox, of Friends of Israel.
"It's a great cross section, and what a joy it is to be in partnership with people all over the world," John said. "That's the excitement for us."
Thompson will be attending the conference at his former church in what is a homecoming of sorts, since both he and his wife, Becky, grew up in Egg Harbor Township.
The couple and their three young children plan on staying with a family in the area during the course of the week and enjoying what time they have left before their lives become drastically different.
The family will have to learn Creole and forgo many of their possessions to move into their new home in Les Cayes in southwest Haiti.
"It all comes down to a deep faith to the Lord," Thompson said. "It doesn't mean I don't get anxious, it doesn't mean it's not easy."
Still, Thompson said ever since that initial trip he has always sensed there was the possibility of moving to Haiti permanently. That's what John felt, too, and is the reason why he wasn't surprised when Thompson told of the move.
"Rob had great gifts, and he had great potential," John said. "It's very satisfying to see him come full circle."
To learn more about the Thompsons, their efforts and how to help, visit www.robandbecky.com
E-mail Christopher Ramirez:
When: Oct. 18 to 25
Where: Linwood Community Church, Seaview Avenue and Shore Road