Pastor and wife feel a calling to Jamaica

Bruce and Barb Laabs, pictured here during a mission trip to the Robin’s Nest Children’s Home in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 2011, will leave to become co-directors there this fall. The couple currently lives in Plato, but Bruce is a former pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Watertown and Barb has taught for 16 years at Christ Community Lutheran School in Watertown and Mayer Lutheran High School. (Submitted photo)
Bruce and Barb Laabs, pictured here during a mission trip to the Robin’s Nest Children’s Home in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 2011, will leave to become co-directors there this fall. The couple currently lives in Plato, but Bruce is a former pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Watertown and Barb has taught for 16 years at Christ Community Lutheran School in Watertown and Mayer Lutheran High School. (Submitted photo)

Bruce and Barb Laabs say that most people who know them aren’t surprised by the life changing decision they made recently. Rather, it’s the timing of it, but not the decision itself, that has surprised many people.

The Laabs will be moving to Jamaica this fall to become volunteer co-directors at a Montego Bay orphanage. For many people, it’s difficult to fathom a couple in their mid-50s packing up, selling all their belongings and moving to a developing country, but the Laabs say it’s just what they’ve been called to do.

“Somebody told me the other day that we were brave,” Barb Laabs said. “It doesn’t seem to me like there is any bravery involved, because it’s just the right thing to do. The Lord is calling us, and we can start to look back now and see how he’s been preparing us for it and opening the doors for us to go.”

The Laabs currently live in Plato, but are no strangers to the Watertown area. Bruce served as the pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church from 1995-1997, and for several months as a temporary pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in 1999. He’s currently the pastor at St. John’s Lutheran in Plato.

Barb Laabs is a former longtime teacher at Christ Community Lutheran School, who served 15 years at the school in various capacities until last year. She even student taught at CCLS way back in her college days, and now, she’s on the staff at Mayer Lutheran High School as a media center supervisor.

But that will all change very soon for the Laabs, who will become directors at the Robin’s Nest Children’s Home. While its typically more common for younger people — who are less likely to have possessions or commitments holding them back — to take on such mission work abroad, Bruce Laabs said this is actually a perfect time in their lives for a dramatic change. They have three grown children, with the youngest now being 23, and no grandchildren yet to keep them tied down.

“I think in God’s plan there is just this perfect window right now where it’s something we can do,” he said.

In becoming directors at Robin’s Nest, the Laabs will not be compensated, but will receive free room, board and food. The couple will be relying on generous donations from various individuals and church congregations back in Minnesota to help cover other expenses while in Jamaica.

The commitment to the position is for at least two years, but Bruce said he’s not ready to put any kind of limit on the duration of their stay.

“We’re feeling from the Lord that as long as it’s working out well for everybody, that it’s going to be open-ended,” Bruce said.

The Robin’s Nest Children’s Home provides a home for 30 children currently ranging in age from 6 months to 14 years, although children could be as young as newborn infants or as old as 18. In addition to the Laabs, the orphanage employs a staff of 25 Jamaicans including cooks, drivers, builders and more. In addition, children are grouped into small family units, each with a special pod parent in charge of that specific group of children, so that each child always has one person with whom they can develop a particularly strong bond.

Bruce Laabs said the orphanage focuses on three main pillars: safety, education and Christian education. With Barb’s educational background, she expects to be heavily involved in that area, checking in frequently with the public school teachers on the progress of the Robin’s Nest children who attend those schools, as well as being involved with the children who receive home schooling at Robin’s Nest. Both the Laabs will also be heavily involved in the Christian education aspect of the orphanage, which also includes staff members and the local community.

Additionally, the Laabs will work closely with the Jamaican government, which places children in orphanages and also coordinates the adoption of children from the orphanage into new homes, many of which are in the United States.

Many ministry groups from the United States make frequent visits to the orphanage, helping by playing with the children and working on maintenance projects. The Laabs will play a big part in coordinating those visits, which is actually how they became acquainted with the organization in the first place.

It was during 2010 that Barb went on a trip organized by Chris Krentz, the wife of current St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Pastor Paul Krentz. That first trip was enough to convince Barb of what she and her husband needed to do. The couple had previously considered missionary work in India around 2005, although Barb didn’t feel the same calling her husband did at that time. This time, she felt differently.

“I came home from there just captivated by the place and the children,” she said. “I came home and told Bruce that I think we need to go be directors there. Something just drew me in.”

This time, it was Bruce that wasn’t so sure. But after the couple returned to the orphanage together in 2011, he was just as captivated.

“When (Barb) came back in 2010 and said she thought we should be directors at the orphanage, at first I myself was not so sure,” Bruce recalled. “But then in 2011, when we went on a mission trip together, I began to be drawn in. Since that time, the Lord has just confirmed more and more clearly and strongly that this is our calling.”

Both Bruce and Barb said they are content and satisfied in their current roles and lives, but did feel a “restlessness” for some time to undertake a more unconventional, front-lines ministry. Barb said the children at the orphanage made her realize just what that mission should be. Many of the children are orphaned, severely abused and removed from their homes, or simply have parents that are too poor to care for them.

“The stories break your heart, but there is so much joy there, and I think that’s part of what is so captivating,” Barb said. “Just that odd combination of the heartache and such joy. For me, the opportunity to be part of the joy for the children, to be part of bringing God’s love and some consistent care for the children, that pulled me in.”

In order to be selected as directors, the Laabs first had to go through an application process through the organization, which is actually based in Minnesota. Now, the couple is raising funds through several fundraising events, including an upcoming event at Mayer Lutheran High School, and is also on working on getting work permits from Jamaica and getting other things in order, such as selling many of their belongings.

Barb said they would put many personal items, mementos, photographs and heirlooms into storage, but most everything else is being sold.

“It’s been interesting regarding our belongings,” Barb said. “When you start to look around, you realize there isn’t much you can’t live without.”

Added Bruce: It’s actually appealing, the idea of being light on our feet, not bogged down by a lot of possessions and earthly ties, and just being ready to go and do what the Lord is asking of us.”

Several benefits have already been held at area churches, and another is planned for Saturday, May 18, at Mayer Lutheran High School. The fundraising dinner will be held from 4 to 7:30 p.m., and a free-will offering will include “Uncle Neddy’s grilled pork chops, cheesy hash browns, beans and cake.

The Laabs said they are thankful for the support, and amid all of their responsibilities at the orphanage, simply providing love will be their biggest role.

“We’re just going to show love to those children, because that’s what they need more than anything,” Bruce said. “They’ve come from some very difficult backgrounds. They just drink up whatever love you can give them. That’s going to be the biggest part of our role is just to give them that consistent love.”

Anybody who would like to set up a presentation by the Laabs, support the mission in any way, or learn more about how to set up a mission trip to the orphanage can contact the Laabs’ at [email protected] More information about Robin’s Nest can also be found at

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]