I recently spent spring break on a mission trip to Washington DC with seven other intrepid team members from the USF Chapel Center and the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. We drove a small diocesan bus up from Tampa, Florida, stopping overnight at Honey Creek Episcopal Conference Center in Georgia on the way up and back, camping out at Virginia Theological Seminary and later in downtown DC, six nights total on the road.
I’m not sure if “mission trip” is exactly the right term for our adventure, though we faced many of the trials and tribulations commonly known to mission teams, living and working together in close quarters with other folks who, prior to the road trip, may have been relative strangers. “Pilgrimage” is another possibility, I suppose, but most folks have a general idea of what a “mission trip” is. They tend to be impressed when you say you spent spring break on a mission trip.
The first question they ask is usually: “Oh! Where did you go?” (And the typical response: “Washington DC? Cool!”)
The next question that follows is, of course, “So, what were you working on there?”
The answer to that question is a bit more complicated.
The whole idea for going to DC came last fall when one of our students asked if we might take a trip up to see the National Cathedral.
I replied: “Great idea! I love the National Cathedral! Let’s do it!”
Of course we couldn’t spend our whole trip just on that one site. What else should we do? Well, one thought was that a trip to our nation’s capitol could perhaps include a look at advocacy, specifically:
So, in addition to a visit to the National Cathedral, we scheduled a visit to the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations. (You didn’t know we had one? More about that later….) We contacted our locally elected legislators and were able to schedule an appointment with Rep Dennis Ross, or at least with his staff member.
Another possibility for our trip was the opportunity to learn more about the Episcopal church and explore different some of the different ways we worship. We soon added to our agenda:
At this point in the planning process, the daily agenda was filling up and yet I still had the nagging feeling that unless there was a service project this just wouldn’t qualify as a mission trip. I started contacting social service organizations in Washington, only to find that most already had all the volunteers they needed for the days we would be in town. After quite a few polite rejections, an email reply came from Lucy, volunteer coordinator at A Wider Circle, saying they could happily use our group’s help at their nonprofit on Wednesday afternoon. What started out as a simple work detail there for us actually became an insightful look into a well defined service philosophy and an inspiring example of the impact one person can have to change lives and help build God’s kingdom. (More about that later, too…..)
Perhaps not your standard mission trip. (As one person said to me, “So, you’re not doing, like, REAL mission work on this trip, are you?”)
However, we learned a lot about our Church and ourselves. We met some amazing people who are quietly working to change the world and bring in God’s Kingdom. We experienced some Kingdom living. And I think we brought a bit of that vision back with us.
Perhaps the real mission work we did on this trip was inside our own hearts and minds.
And our real service is just beginning….
Our intrepid mission team left for KY last Monday aboard a brightly colored Hispanic ministry bus. Such a vehicle at first seemed overly spacious for such a small group; however, we planned to carry some of our groceries. Plus towels and bed sheets. Also pillows. And, after a quick peek at the week’s weather forecast, jackets and sweatshirts instead of Florida shorts and tank tops.
Basically, by the time we left predawn the bus looked like we were scrambling for an emergency evacuation.
Mapquest set the total driving time at 13.5 hours but Mapquest does not take into account a lunch break (Subway), supper break (Cracker Barrel, of course!), and multiple gas&potty stops. It was a long day but as the terrain gradually became mountainous and the temperatures continued to dip cooler, I was excited. I had lived in south central Kentucky for fourteen years and was seeing more and more that was familiar as we approached the state border. I was also hearing more and more that was familiar with each and every conversation at rest stops, to the point that, when we finally pulled into Irvine’s Walmart just before midnight, I walked into the store and thought: “I’m home!”
We actually still had miles to go, of course, even from Walmart. St Timothy Outreach Center sits high up on Barnes Mountain. The midnight climb up the mountain was somewhat less daunting than the next morning’s ride, when we could see how sheer the drop was below us! The first building pictured on the right was our home for the week and featured dorm style rooms with bunk beds, a large kitchen and common room. For our group, it was a comfortable base camp for meals, hot showers and lodging.
The second picture is a newer log cabin, still under construction, located behind the first building. It promises to be a beautiful house for future visiting teams.
Our host for the week was Fr Bryant Kibler, who is the Priest-In-Charge at St Timothy’s as well as serving a parish of his own and working in diocesan administration. We found Fr Bryant to be, quite honestly, rather amazing. Every morning he would gather our crew in a big truck with an even bigger van attached. After transporting us to a job site (no small feat on narrow muddy roads and driveways!), he would divvy up the various duties, keeping us all busy, teaching the less construction savvy of us the tricks of the trade, and jumping in to do the more skilled jobs as needed. During our lunch break, our team ate while Fr Bryant gave us a fascinating overview of Kentucky history and culture.
Work at St Timothy’s varies according to the time of year and the size and skills of the group. We were fortunate enough to be working inside during a week that was unseasonably rainy and cold. We were able to continue painting and flooring that had been started in a house currently occupied but without electricity or running water. We also repaired the floor and painted a room in our new friend Manfred’s house.
A community meal is served at St Timothy’s on Tuesday night. Local children gathered for games and pizza. Kids are, of course, pretty much kids wherever you go, from the vivacious, giggly preteen girls to a pair of young brothers, very shy, who would not play skittles with the rest of us but watched very closely and later went back to play the game on their own.
The trip home went more quickly and efficiently than Monday’s long ride. The people I’d met and the work we had shared have stayed with me. I carried the joy of the journey with me back into my work place this week.
“Did you have a good vacation?” I was asked.
Our mission trip to eastern Kentucky is just hours away! We will be leaving some time before the crack of dawn to begin our long trek up I-75 to the mountains. We are traveling in a diocesan bus. (I haven’t seen it yet but am told that it is colorful.) In the midst of my pre-departure jitters, I’ve had a little poem on my mind that I saved years ago. It’s by Michael Chitwood and I believe I ran across it in Poetry magazine:
ON BEING ASKED TO PRAY FOR A VAN
My evangelical brethren have let me know,
via the quarterly fundraising letter,
that they can’t get the gospel around
because their van has given up the ghost.
God in the machine, help them.
I lift up their carburetor and their transaxle.
Bless them with meshed gears and a greased cam shaft.
Free their lifters.
Deliver their differential
and anoint their valves and their pistons.
Unblock their engine block
and give them deep treaded tires.
Their brakes cry out to You. Hear them, O Lord.
Drive out the demons from their steering column
and come in to the transmission
that they may know the peace of passing.
Minister even unto the turn indicator.
Creator Spirit, Holy Maker of the Universe,
give them gas.
All joking aside, please keep us in your prayers, as well as all the other folks who are heading out this summer for the great privilege of mission team work.
Thanks for reading. Will let you know how the journey goes….
The USF Chapel Center mission trip is just a few weeks away!
It’s a funny thing about mission trips. If you’ve not been on one, the idea may seem to you—as it did to me at one time—perhaps a little foolish. After all, I’m not a carpenter, plumber, electrician, or of any other profession that would be at all useful at a building site. So, what’s the point in me traveling cross country for a service project? Wouldn’t the cause be better served if I opened my checkbook rather than packed my suitcase?
On the other hand, once you have been on a mission trip, you see things differently. Usually there is something about the experience that opens your heart and just stays with you.
My first real mission trip was traveling several years ago to New Orleans during the summer. Our church crew worked with Episcopal Relief and Development on a variety of houses in the 9th Ward and nearby neighborhoods. It had been quite some time since Katrina but the remains of the destruction and the enormity of the recovery work still ahead was overwhelming. We spend our first work day mucking out debris from a house that had been destroyed twice–first by water and later by fire. By the end of the day we were exhausted, filthy, hot and very thirsty.
We stopped on the way back to our lodgings to gas up the van and went into the store to buy cold drinks. Two well dressed African American women ahead of us in the line at the cash register sized us up with a glance as we waited. They finished paying for their purchase and before heading out the door, turned around to us and said simply:
“Thank you for the work you are doing here. Thank you for coming to our city. God bless you.”
Ask me why, of all the memorable experiences we had that week, that one exchange with strangers remains especially with me and I cannot give you an easy answer. Perhaps it is God’s foolishness that we head out again and again to mission trips, knowing that there is really little we can do to help in some situations but knowing it’s important that we try.
It’s not just the work we do on the mission trip but our presence for others there that lets them know they have not been forgotten. It’s not just the experience of a short summer trip but the witness we carry back to our own community as we share stories again and again of what we have seen and experienced.
There are lots of web options now for finding volunteer work and mission opportunities. The following are mostly from an excellent recent issue of US News & World Report (Nov 2010) focusing on public service:
Episcopal Relief & Development
Catholic Charities USA
So, what about the foolishness of mission trips?
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:25
More to come. Thanks for reading!