I SPENT THE PAST week being amazed by what extraordinary things ordinary people can accomplish.
A efficiency expert would not share my amazement: 24 people spent seven days (five if you don’t count the travel time) building two wheelchair ramps and two sets of wooden steps, replacing a worn-out carpet with a new linoleum floor and repairing some leaky windows.
Even when you consider that 14 of the 24 were teens and six of the 10 adults have no carpentry skills, it still couldn’t be called an efficient operation. There was too little planning about what supplies would be needed on each project, or even each day, and so too many trips to the hardware store 30 minutes away, and too many people on some work sites and not enough on others.
But efficiency isn’t the primary goal of our annual mission work trip to Appalachia; work isn’t even the primary goal. The primary goal is mission. And for this unusually small group of traditional and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, of liberals and conservatives, of South Carolina fans and Clemson fans, of grumpy old men and cockeyed young optimists, there was an unflinching commitment to mission. To following Jesus’ command to “serve the least of these” as well as the exhortation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that we should preach the gospel at all times — even using words if necessary.
The high school students in our group were committed to not only making repairs but also getting to know the elderly homeowners they served — listening to their stories, laughing and crying with them, coming to love them. To showing kindness toward all they encountered.
A 15-year-old beamed after the second day of work as she described the transformation of Mr. Lawrence, the elderly homeowner whose windows she helped repair: He had been so depressed the first day that we were afraid he wouldn’t let us make the repairs; by day two, he spent the entire morning outside telling us stories while we worked.
A 17-year-old recounted how Ms. Cathy started talking about finding a way to quit smoking as the team scrubbed sticky brown nicotine off her ceiling.
The youths who worked at Mr. Trivette’s home all nodded in agreement as our priest predicted that he soon would have become a prisoner in his own home without the wheelchair ramp they had built.
An 18-year-old spoke with genuine affection on our last morning together as she recounted how much it seemed to mean to Ms. Hazel to have so many young people around — especially when a thunderstorm forced all of them into her tiny living room for an hour.
The teenagers didn’t divide into cliques, as teens are wont to do, but worked, played and worshiped together as if they had been best friends their entire lives; they even embraced one boy who delighted in annoying the rest of them, including him in their activities and letting him have his way when he made unreasonable demands.
You’re probably waiting for me to talk about how our mission work demonstrates what we can accomplish when we rise above our divisions to focus on shared goals, and how desperately we need the larger society to do that more often. And I do believe that one of the biggest threats we face as a society is the declining willingness of people across the political spectrum to set aside our tribalistic political differences and recognize that there is more that unites us than separates us. That is undoubtedly true among those of us who call ourselves Christians, and I believe it is true as well among all segments of American society. But anyone who’s going to be convinced by such an argument is probably already convinced.
Instead, my point is simply to call attention to the mission work that young people and adults do, very quietly, throughout our community. And to suggest that if you’re not already involved in mission work, or supporting mission work, you might want to change that.
The Church of the Good Shepherd in Columbia has sponsored this work trip since 1991, when Father James Lyon IV became our rector and brought the seven-year-old program with him. Last year, he turned it over to Father Joseph Whitehurst of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church in Aiken. We spend a week each June repairing homes, creating community and engaging in morning and evening worship at a former Episcopal monastery and school at Valle Crucis, just outside Boone, N.C. The high school students are primarily from our two churches and Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia.
Our trip is loosely affiliated with Home Works, a lay-driven ministry whose goal is to help “youth collide with poverty stricken homeowners in a context of transformation” and which sponsors about 25 events a year, from one-day blitzes in Columbia to a 16-day program in Peru. The United Methodist Church’s Salkehatchie Summer Service program does similar work, as do other denominations. And of course Habitat for Humanity does this year-round.
All of these programs make an extraordinary difference in the lives of the people they serve, by providing repairs and, more importantly, by providing a loving presence, even for a brief time.
They also make an extraordinary difference in the lives of the volunteers young and old, teaching us to care for someone other than ourselves and our family and friends.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.