Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Week in Appalachia

I've been on a lot of mission trips. Ten, to be exact. I've helped on a farm, served in soup kitchens, sorted clothes in thrift stores, cleared urban lots overcome by weeds, cleaned out an abandoned inner-city house, scraped paint in an old convent, helped maintain a campground for troubled youth, assisted in building a church on an American Indian reservation, and helped restore a house in the Lower Ninth Ward. And to be honest, there has come a point before most of these trips, no matter how used to the packing, the general flow and structure of a typical week of service that I am, when I've felt a tremendous sense of anxiety. There have come points along the way when I've wondered how else to spend the week, whether I really should go, fretting about the unknown before me.

But I've always ended up going, and I've always been the better for it.

Last week, I traveled with over 70 people from at least four congregations down to Jonesville, Virginia to work with Appalachia Service Project, a mission organization that helps restore homes in arguably the poorest region of the United States. After I got back, several people asked whether we had gone because there had been some kind of natural disaster there; some tornado or flood or other event that necessitated aid. The answer is that, no, there's been no extra-tragic event, no horrendous happening that causes people to flock there in droves, hammers, saws, and compassion in tow. Houses without insulation or with roofs caving in or with no protection from the elements is tragedy enough, and that's why people go. "Warmer, safer, dryer" is the organization's motto. It's all they want to do.

Typically, once I was on the road toward Virginia the butterflies vanished. Before this trip, it had been five years since my last outing of this kind. Perhaps the anxiety I felt beforehand was about my being out of practice, or simply not being familiar with this particular organization or area of the country, or all of the above. Whatever it was, I began to forget those reasons as soon as we made our way there.

On Monday morning, we met the family for whom we'd be working: an older couple whose house was in need of insulation and drywall in two rooms. One of those rooms would need a new floor before getting to the walls. That at least was our project. There were other things that we or others could have done, but we didn't have the time. Their own bedroom clearly had been fixed up by previous workers, sporting wooden laminate flooring and a soft eggshell color on their walls. By the end of the week, their living room would match, thanks in no small part to our crew leader who'd basically grown up hanging drywall his whole life.

I did a little of everything: drilling in screws, mudding, sanding, painting, putting up trim. As one who doesn't hail from the "carpentry-since-birth" school of manhood, I was just glad to be competent at the tasks I was given. The jobs themselves weren't hard; I just needed to be directed on the wheres and whens. For me, it was enough. This sort of thing is not something I feel a need to be in charge of.

We got to hear pieces of our family's story while there. A recovering alcoholic, the husband still managed to do his best to see that his five kids graduated high school. There were strong undertones of continued and sustained guilt about his disease that permeated through what he shared with us. The wife, sweet and kind, would check in on us every day, a gentle smile adorning her soft face. There was such love and grace that shone through both of them. They admitted faults, but it was also clear they'd been doing the best that they could manage. When poverty has a face, a voice, and a name, its complexity is much harder to dismiss.

The week passed quickly. It was time to leave before I knew it. But the trip had done what I hoped it would do.

There are some who dismiss mission trips like these, referring to them as "service tourism" and the like. What difference does a week really make, they ask. What can one really learn in such a small amount of time? The argument goes that these sorts of trips are mainly just a bunch of comfortable suburbanites doing a few days' work to ease their guilt or to come back with a few stories. I can only speak for myself, but I hope that I'm not just doing that.

I think that mission trips are meant to be the beginning of something. They're meant to open one's eyes to a world beyond the bubble one has created for oneself. The idea is that when you go to serve in such a way, you begin to break out of that bubble and ask yourself what you could be doing closer to home to ease the suffering around you. Sometimes it takes traveling a few hundred miles to get you to ask what you could be doing in your own neighborhood.

For me, it was about remembering something, and ultimately that's what kept quieting my inner voices of anxiety and second-guessing.

When I began serving in full-time ministry, mission was one of the main planks in my platform, even built out of sturdy hickory for extra resilience against the minutiae that inevitably would begin beating against it. No matter what else we as a church would be doing, I told myself, we would need to be serving in mission. Whether changes in worship would be possible, whether a youth group could be sustainable, whether my dreams of other "emerging" activities could be fulfilled, we at least would do mission work, and do it well.

And that has happened, I'm glad to say. I'm not seeking to puff out my chest, but there has been a consistent sense of mission in our congregation over my tenure here. Some of that already existed, but we've made great strides forward in other ways.

But at some point, I must admit, I began losing sight of that. Against my best efforts, the plank began eroding. I have my theories about how it happened, most having to do with becoming distracted by other priorities or disillusioned with certain things, which I'm not sure I want to get into here. The point is that the arc had made its way from its energetic heights to the downward slope toward indifference, and I needed a boost; to remember why mission is so important to me and why it is so crucial to the church's identity.

I left the routine of church work for a week to pound some nails, paint some walls, drink plenty of water to keep from dehydrating, and meet some wonderful people. And I began to remember. I began to remember that the fruit of God's kingdom is grown in the dirt and sweat of mission work. Correct fonts on bulletins and making decisions about new mission statements and a new projector system have their place, but these trips, these days and weeks of service are what have ingrained in me what the church ultimately needs to be concerned about.

I returned with a renewed sense of purpose and joy, snapped out of my stupor and with a fresh plank in place. Time to get back to work.