I have spent most of the last six days decompressing from one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences of my life, and processing it so I can put it down on paper and relate it to you. Last Wednesday through Saturday I participated in our church’s bi-annual high school youth group Appalachian mission trip where we worked with Hand In Hand Ministries in Auxier, Kentucky.
During those four days I witnessed immense love and compassion for our fellow human beings. It wasn’t just one-way from our group to those whom we went to help. No, it also came from them to us, between the individuals within our own group, and between our group and other groups who were also there to volunteer. Having never been on a mission trip before, I will say my expectation was more along the lines of us giving “alms” to those in need with the exception that we would be giving of our talent and not just our treasure. How wrong I was! The kids and the Hand In Hand staff showed me that the love in true Christian charity, like C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, is more than just alms and more than an emotion. It is a demonstration of love for another, “A state not of the feelings but of the will.”
I am grateful to God for the experience. And I feel fortunate because the trip almost didn’t happen.
Two weeks before the group planned to depart, Mike, the group leader and parish Religious Director, experienced a personal injury that prevented him from going. As such, the entire trip was in jeopardy unless someone could be found to take his place. Since my daughter, Grace, was going, I was asked if I would go in Mike’s place. After praying about it, I agreed to go. I was excited about volunteering and participating in a new experience, about helping others, and working with our youth to provide them with a valuable life experience.
That optimism came to a screeching halt the next morning when Mike advised that two of the other adult chaperones, a married couple, had let him know they could not go. With only two chaperones left, Kelsea and I, the trip was once again in jeopardy. I saw two options: find two more people, a man and a woman, or cancel the trip. As I spoke to others about our seeming misfortune I heard warnings from them such as: “Well, there’s your sign!”, “You’re not meant to go on this trip”, and, “The good Lord’s sending you a message to not go”. As I listened to them, I began to believe they just might be right.
The next day I had an opportunity to spend an hour in prayer at Adoration. I prayed for help in discerning what to do – scuttle our plans or try to find two other chaperones to join us. As I prayed I became convinced that the setbacks were simply Satan throwing up obstacles testing our resolve to do God’s work. Deciding to move forward, I asked a friend to help me find two more people who were both qualified and willing to go. Fortunately, within a couple days we found two such people, Clay, a good friend of mine, and Becky, a veteran of several similar mission trips.
We met at the church for mass on Wednesday morning. The four of us sat with our five charges: Grace, Kathryn, Seth, Hannah and Tayla, and we received a blessing from our priest. The normal gospel reading for the day was replaced by the Judgment of the Nations passage from Matthew 25: 31-46 (NAB):
“(35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, (36) naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me….(40) And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
The deacon’s homily referred to Mother Theresa’s work with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and was a fitting inspiration for us.
After mass, the kids hugged parents and we loaded up into two cars and set off on our four hour drive to Auxier. Along the way we stopped for lunch and took a goofy group picture, and detoured to Natural Bridge State Park for a hike up to its unique rock formation. Both were opportunities to have some fun and begin bonding as a group.
We arrived at the Hand In Hand Ministries Auxier Center on time and were greeted by their friendly staff: Gail, Kevin, and Andrew, and by three summer interns: Aniela, Freddie and Jeremy. We learned we would be sharing our volunteering experience with a dozen or so other adults and youths from the Louisville area and as far away as Arkansas. Gail explained to us the Center’s mission, and introduced us to the projects on which we would work over the next three days. She gave us some background on the people we would be helping. As Gail described the hardships faced by their clients, I began to see the wheels turning in the minds of our kids. They were trying to discern which cause they felt most passionate about and how they could help improve the lives of these people they had never met. Our group split between two projects and we were joined on them by some of the other volunteers.
The whole crew at Hand In Hand Auxier Center
Thursday morning found some of the kids being rousted from bed earlier than they had risen all summer, and we mustered for breakfast, packed lunches, said prayers, and loaded trucks with the tools and supplies we would need for the day. As we loaded up to drive to the clients’ homes, I could see the excitement in the kids’ eyes.
I joined Clay, Kelsea, Tayla, Seth, and others at a home where we would be removing walls and ceilings in a house and reinforcing deteriorated rafters for eventual roof replacement. Becky went with Grace, Kathryn and Hannah, and five others to a house to repair a porch and build a wheelchair ramp to the house. The third home, which we would not go to until Saturday, needed new exterior doors installed as the existing ones would not close. This old house, we learned, had, in the last couple weeks, just received its first electricity and water.
I don’t think anything could have prepared our kids for what they would find as they walked into each of these homes. The obvious poverty and poor living conditions were undeniably foreign to anything they had ever experienced. And, I was almost there with them. We had the opportunity to talk face-to-face with the home owners and learned they wanted nothing more than to have safe and healthy homes for their families. In those first few minutes after arriving, I began to sense a transformation taking place within all of us.
In observing the kids, and looking inward myself, I was reminded of the lyrics from a Jason Gray song, With Every Act Of Love1, wherein he sings of a man who can’t be bothered by a woman’s “heart-cry” written on a cardboard sign she is holding:
“….But when she looks him in the eye / His heart is broken open wide / And he feels the hand of God reach out through him / As heaven touches earth // Oh, we bring the Kingdom come / Oh, with every act of love / Jesus, help us carry You / Alive in us Your light shines through.”
There’s no doubt our hearts were broken open wide during those first few moments. And, over the course of the next two and a half days, I saw and felt the hand of God reach out through me and the other volunteers, bringing heaven to earth, and His Kingdom come with every act of love.
I saw high-schoolers who probably haven’t cleaned their rooms in months jump in and move the homeowner’s personal belongings out of the house so that demolition could begin and do it with care and respect. These same kids, who more than likely complain about washing dishes or mowing the yard, donned Tyvek suits, dust masks, and safety glasses, grabbed crow bars and commenced busting out ceiling drywall with enthusiasm.
Suited up for demolition work
I saw compassion by volunteers who took the time to visit with and get to know the homeowners, and who honored the homeowner’s desire to participate in the renovation of their own residence.
Kids took pride in their work, from cutting a straight line in drywall to hammering tacks perfectly straight and spaced to fasten anti-slip treads on a wheelchair ramp.
There were some kids who were less outgoing than others but were invited into the extra-curricular activities in the evenings by the other kids. It was like there was some unwritten and unspoken morality which everyone knew and honored by ensuring nobody was left out.
I saw kids with more skill and experience watching out for those with less ability and helping them to learn and perform. Never did I see anyone suggest that “this is my job and that is yours”. I witnessed volunteers relieving sweaty and dirty workers so they could grab a bottle of water and cool off without the work stopping. I saw eager teamwork in action by people who had only known each other for a few hours.
Learning to use a circular saw
I saw kids cleaning up their messes, shoveling sheetrock and sweeping up dust before they left at night because it was the right thing to do.
Even in the midst of living conditions to which most people would turn up their noses, our kids were always positive and encouraging, always trying to build up instead of belittling. They made me proud to be associated with them.
We went to the Thursday evening Front Porch Pickin’ at the US23 Music Highway Museum to listen and dance to some of the best Bluegrass music to be found. While there, I saw kids honor the dance requests of the elderly locals who come to this event every Thursday night to clog and two-step the night away and have fun, kids from the different volunteer groups ask each other to dance, and I saw the experienced college-student interns request the pleasure of a dance from the wallflowers in the group to ensure that nobody was left out. Even I danced!
Clogging and two-stepping at Front Porch Pickin’
I saw pure love in action when a young woman donated her personal spending money to purchase an electric table lamp and present it in person to the couple who had just had electricity installed in their house.
I saw “kids” from 14 to 74, most of whom were strangers when we arrived on Wednesday, engage in work and play like they were life-long family. By the time the week was over, “family” was the best way to describe us.
I saw humility that would make Jesus proud when we went around the room on Saturday morning reflecting on the highs and lows of the week. I witnessed strong men break down and cry and younger kids comfortably and perfectly articulate their emotions in front of a large group.
And, I heard our kids discussing and dreaming about returning next year and possibly being summer interns themselves.
By mid-day Saturday, when it was time to leave, nobody wanted to go. But, after tearful hugs and long goodbyes, we packed up and headed home. I know many lasting friendships were made during those four days, and each of us left transformed, fulfilled, and richer than when we arrived.
On the way home I reflected on how we almost cancelled the trip and how our group of nine almost missed these life changing experiences. I couldn’t help but think that in spite of Satan’s attempt to thwart our desire to do as Jesus would have us do, we won this game. Walking Hand In Hand with God, we shut out the Devil nine to nothing.
As I was writing this I was listening to the song, With Every Act Of Love, again. Between the second verse and the refrain there is a bridge that sums up the main take-away for me from this trip. It goes:
“God put a million, million doors in this world for His love to walk through / One of those doors is you.”
I hope this experience helped all of us see ourselves as beautifully painted and architecturally perfect portals through which the hand of God can bring heaven to earth.
(Note: Out of respect for Hand In Hand’s clients at whose homes we worked, I chose not to include any photographs of the worksites.)
1With Every Act Of Love, words and music by Jason Gray and Jason Ingram, © 2013 Centricity Music Publishing, Nothing Is Wasted Music (ASCAP) / Sony-ATV Timber Publishing, Open Hands Music (SESAC).
(The post, Opening the Door between Heaven and Earth, was first published in Reflections of a Lay Catholic)