Last Friday morning, the 3rd street parking lot was bustling as high schoolers and youth leaders prepared for their imminent departure to Cosby, TN. A number of their parents and sponsors were also gathered, offering words of support and plying everyone with bags of goodies. It was a lovely send-off, and I’m confident that these Union Church representatives are now hard at work lending a hand to the people of Sunset Gap.
As I watched the kids pile into the vans, getting situated amongst the gear, locating belts and headphones, I thought immediately of the church work trips I have participated in and chaperoned over the years. On our way home from vacation, we drove past the exit for Chillicothe, OH, where I once spent a week teaching VBS and painting houses. On our way down, we drove through the part of Kentucky where I’d once re-tarred the roof of a house on a rural hill. My memories have faded with time, but I bet I could tell you a good number of the inside jokes my friends and I devised, and who paired off with whom.
Work trips stay with you; they have a lasting impact.
There has been some debate in recent years about whom, exactly, experiences that lasting impact. Week long service trips have become favorite targets of criticism in youth ministry circles, because they do not build relationships between those who would serve and the communities in need, and because social change cannot be wrought through the home repair skills of suburban teenagers.
The most biting critique comes from the experts at The Onion, in the form of a [satirical] article headlined “6-day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.” How much can we learn about a community and its people in such a short time? How much difference can we make?
The critique is not altogether unfair. I once chaperoned a trip that was organized by a company that ran work tours, planning everything from the meals to the worship content. The kids on the trip were instructed that the quality or quantity of the work they were doing was far less important than whether they were able to use the occasion of home repair to “witness” to “[their] resident.” As if Jesus appreciates the kind of referral that comes with shoddy work. As if the inhabitants of rural Appalachia needed to hear about Christianity from suburban teenagers.
Last Saturday, Josh and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary with tickets to The Book of Mormon. It was hilarious and obscene, and featured some incredibly fun production numbers. It’s also, as I’ve mentioned, a theologically rich show. Two young Mormon missionaries travel to the most poverty stricken, violent, disease ridden village in Uganda. The people there are uninterested in their faith; your Bible cannot help us, the villagers contend. And, indeed, stories about how awesome Joseph Smith and the young missionaries are fail to inspire change or even comfort. It is only when one of the missionaries starts changing the details a little (ok, a lot) in order to speak to the specific needs, fears and hopes of the community that he begins to make any headway.
The folks of Union Church are heading to Cosby, TN to work, not to convert, and they will surely make a difference. Anyone who’s ever tried to lead a VBS without an influx of volunteers, or who’s found themselves facing down an unaffordable but necessary home repair, knows what a difference it can make to have folks willing and equipped to help.
There are, though, limitations to what type of lasting change our group can make. Roughly nine percent of the people in Cosby live below the poverty line, and the median annual household income is just $26,000, just the smallest bit above that line. With that much poverty, opportunities are limited, people go hungry, folks are often without the basic public services we take for granted.
This may be the first time some of our kids are encountering what theologians call “the riddle of inequality.” The riddle is this: if God loves all people equally, why do some of us have so much, and some have so little? If God is just, how is that fair?
Americans pretty regularly buy into the myth that our material success is a sign of our virtue, and those who are poor struggle as a result of their poor choices. But living in the midst of rural poverty, with faithful leaders guiding them, will help our kids to question that narrative, and begin to ask what part they can play in working to shape the world toward God’s vision.
Will you hold our group in prayer with me? Let’s be grateful for the good and holy work of serving that they are doing in our name, and let us hope that this will be a week that has a lasting impact on each and every one of them, as they begin to discern how God is calling them to act, live and serve in the world.
Reverend Bromleigh McCleneghan
Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.