Mingo County mission trip: reflecting back, looking forward

I never quite know how to encapsulate all that happens on one of our mission trips. There is just so much that happens: tine in the vehicles there and back, staying at churches on the road there and back, inside jokes, inside disputes, conversations that cannot be reconstructed let alone shared, insights shared in confidence, logistical frustrations, transcendent moments not caught on camera or phone but merely glimpsed in the mind and captured in the heart, tears shed, laughs shared, worship offered…the list is innumerable.

So, because it is easiest and most accessible, we end up talking almost exclusively about the work we did and the people we met. And it makes sense to do so, as the work and the relationships are the main reasons for such trips!

19 youth and 7 adults from Woodridge United Methodist Church spent the week of June 19 in Mingo County, West Virginia. Once there, we joined groups from Wauconda, IL and Laverne, MN for a total of 70 people.

Good and meaningful work happened:

  • An entire house was cleaned, scraped and repainted.
  • At another house repairs were made, a wall built and painted, a garden tended.
  • When rain made outside work impossible, the inside of a house was cleaned.
  • Kid’s Club for children aged 4-12 was offered with lunch, skits, games, snacks, crafts, songs, and reading.
  • At Mingo’s only nursing home the residents spent time with us in conversation and in song.

Through all of that and more, love was offered to residents of Mingo County. However we served that week, we did it with the people in need there. One of the most commendable features of YouthWorks, the organization we partnered with, is their commitment to building not just homes but relationships with the people being helped. We spent time talking with the residents, sharing our stories and listening to theirs. I believe that in such exchanges – real conversations that recognize another human being as a beloved child of God worthy of respect – God is honored.

So we want to share not just the description of what we did, but also a few glimpses into lives that touched us. People like:

  • 6 year old Alvin, who came to Kid’s Club each day at noon, having had nothing to eat yet that day. We were so thankful that the host church for Kid’s Club (First UMC, Williamson) provided healthy lunch and snacks for the children. Because of them we were able to offer Alvin something good to eat.
  • Joy, the nursing home resident who could not speak so communicated through pointing and grunting. She clearly loved being in the presence of all those high schoolers! And they felt the same about her as they laughed, sang and played games.
  • Verna, the homeowner who started the week by handing the crew at her home a list of 42 items to complete. By the end of the week she was working along side the crew as much as she could and was grateful for the help provided.
  • Joshua, the 17 year old nursing home resident. All the youth were moved to meet someone their age in that care facility. We talked with him about movies, games, music…and what we were up to in Mingo County. The youth decided to take a collection and use it to replace a game that had been stolen from Joshua.

All week long Luke 6:27-28 was used to challenge us to Be Different. In that passage, Jesus is speaking to a large group of followers. He says:

If you’re listening, here’s my message, here’s what life in the Kingdom of God looks like: Keep loving your enemies no matter what they do. Keep doing good to those who hate you. Keep speaking blessings on those who curse you. Keep praying for those who mistreat you.

Each morning we spent time in silence. As we thought, read and prayed we considered how we could believe different, act different, react different and love different. Not just there in Mingo County, but back here in Illinois. Back here in our usual routines and among our usual friends and colleagues. How will we be different?

The answers to that question are still being written. It is my hope and prayer that those answers are written over and over again throughout our lives as we love all others and serve those in need wherever we are.

What significant mission trip experiences have you had lately (or ever)?

Inspiring generosity

“You ask me how I know my Savior lives? He lives…in the hearts and thus the actions of the people of Woodridge UMC!”

Ok, so maybe the old hymn doesn’t go exactly like that, but it certainly could. Rarely have I been so excited to share a story! Last week’s Administrative Council (the top, decision making body in our church) meeting – and with it perhaps the very future of our congregation – was shaped by displays of inspiring generosity!

The Backstory:

Our Small Miracles Preschool is bursting at the seams and has a long list of families waiting and wanting to register their children. They are in need of space to grow into. So they brought a proposal to Ad Council a few months ago requesting to move the small classroom known as the Yellow Room into the current Youth Room and move their office (currently in an electrical closet) into the Yellow Room.

Obviously, such a request brings with it many questions, including: Where would the youth go? What impact would a room move have on our current ministries? How would future ministries be affected? How would such a move be paid for? How can both the Preschool ministry and the youth ministry be affirmed and supported in this? What is best for the church as a whole in this?

After much discussion about all those questions and more with many youth and adults in many settings over the last few months, an agreement was reached. The current Overflow Room made the most sense as the site for the New Youth Room.

A Few of the Challenges:

  • The Overflow room is farther away from the Narthex/Sanctuary and thus from the main flow of the life of the church.
  • It is smaller than the current Youth Room.
  • It has been treated like a storage space or garage and is in need of much work to make viable.

A Few of the Potentials:

  • Getting the youth involved in creatively creating their own space
  • Injecting energy and excitement into our Youth Ministries
  • Close to the kitchen for easier WNL dinner preparation

More can and is and will be said about both of those categories. But let’s move on with the story for now…

Lori Ann graciously provided an example of what the New Youth Room could look like and an estimate of the costs involved, about $5000. Thanks, Lori Ann!

And So It Came to Pass…

The Preschool offered $2000 toward the New Youth Room improvements. But from where would the rest come? Ad Council quickly affirmed the agreement that neither Youth Council General Budget funds nor youth fundraising funds were to be used – those are needed to fund our current ministries, like retreats and mission trips.

As we groped for a solution, God’s Holy Spirit was at work.

The tension in the room rose. Ideas were proffered but none were found agreeable. The conversation began to devolve.

Then a note was passed.

As Ken, Ad Council Chairperson, looked at the note, I said (in a desperate attempt at humor), “Check the box that you like [the person who sent the note]!”

After all, what is this, Junior High?

No, no, it was instead a very mature, healthy, generous, shocking, inspiring message:

“I will pay for the remaining $3000.” –[signed by an Ad Council member who wishes to remain anonymous]

Stunned silence… Amazed applause!!

Then that Ad Council member got out a checkbook and literally wrote the check right then and there!

But the Spirit wasn’t done with us yet.

Everything Changed…

That member’s generosity paved the way for the Council to adopt the proposed room move, while acknowledging that Youth Council, along with the youth themselves and other youth ministry advocates, need more time to create an exact plan. It is understood that the $5000 is an estimate. Adjustments are possible.

The challenges involved in this move have been discussed. But more discussion and consideration of those challenges is needed, and not just by Youth Council. So included in the adopted motion is:

The church rededicates itself to supporting both youth and preschool ministries and to better including both in the life of the church.

Are those just words? Perhaps. But good, honest, well-meaning intent is present. And so are actions. In fact, I’m absolutely convinced that act of incredible generosity completely changed the feeling in the room, the tenor of the discussions that followed, and inspired others to similar generous action.

You see, the other major decision before Ad Council that night was finalizing and approving the 2011 Budget (aka General Budget, aka Operating Budget). That went pretty smoothly.

The interesting and challenging part was how Ad Council wrestled trying to make the available $8300 spread over $26,000 worth of worthy requests to add to the Budget. It is an amazing story in and of itself…but one I can’t scoop Finance on. It’s their story to tell this week. So you have to come to worship with us this Sunday, Feb 6 at 9:00 or 10:30am to hear it!

Suffice it to say that others present that night also made generous commitments of their family’s money so that the church could indeed fund some of those worthy requests, requests which will increase the ministries of the church.

For instance, WUMC is able to fund the Confirmation line item at the full $2700 requested. Why? Because at that meeting one family (who also wishes to remain anonymous) committed $2000 toward it! Amazing!

Think of it. The Small Miracles Preschool and those two families comprise three people with no direct connection to WUMC’s Youth Ministries. And yet together they gave $7000 worth of special gifts to ensure ministries with and for youth are strong in our church!

On behalf of all our young people and all at WUMC who work with them: thank you!

I give thanks to God for how good those people are. I give thanks for how good God is.

Certainly there is more to talk about, more to plan and more to do. I’m excited about all of it! But for now, let’s pause to give more thanks. All of this was possible through the hard work, hard questions, long conversations, and dedication of so many. Especially: Christine, Kevin, Kathy, Karen, Lori Ann, and all the youth who gave input. Thank you.

Now, I can understand if you’re thinking, “So what! Some people gave some money to their own church. Big deal.” And you might very well be right. In many ways, it is no big deal. And through the giving of that money not a single person was fed or clothed or visited in prison or rescued from oppression. At least not directly – our church is involved in ministries and organizations that do all those things. Yet I cannot shake the sense that something…well…holy happened in that meeting that night. In some small yet potent way God was at work in, through, with and in spite of us.

So it seems to me that the question before us all (“you, me, them, everybody…”) is:

What generous offering of time, talent, gift, service and witness is God inspiring in you?

Theological Dialogue on Youth Ministry #2

For me, what separated this conference from most all others I’ve attended in 15 years of ministry is how well the organizers knew their audience. I expect nothing less from Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Kenda Dean and Andrew Root, but still, it was refreshing to be told, “get up and leave the room when you need to. Go get coffee or take that call or chat wander and chat with other wanderers…we understand important things are happening outside this meeting space.” These things always happen anyway, might as well acknowledge them from the outset. Plus, we youth worker types tend to have trouble sitting still for long. Hey, what can I say? Sometimes stereotypes are based on truth. Or maybe that’s just me and I shouldn’t generalize.

Anyway, the really important way FirstThird demonstrated audience recognition was through all the many avenues for, well, dialogue. I mean, it was built right into the conference name after all.

Monday night the medium for dialogue was that staple of youth minister tricks from time immemorial: show a movie and then force ask those gathered to talk about it. I’d never heard of the documentary American Teen before that night. Now I can’t wait to show it to the parents of the youth in my church. It’s funny, poignant, honest and devastating.

A couple of money quotes (without giving away any spoilers, if such a thing is possible for a documentary. Which I think it is. Some of the discussion revolved around the film having too much editing in an attempt to force stories…but I’m getting ahead of my self. Back to quotes…)

“I wish life was more like video games because then I’d always get the girl,” says the Geek. Yes, the film is populated by stock characters – which provided much discussion fodder as well. As you might expect, the Geek gets most of the funny lines, including what has to be The Worst Thing to Say to Your Date Ever.

Hannah, the Rebel character, goes through the hardest ordeal in the film. But she also seemed most in touch with her hopes and dreams. “I want to do something that will touch people, that they’ll remember. I don’t wanna stay here and work some shit job. Going to Indiana [University] sounds awful. I wanna go to school in California and work in films.”

Parents get in on the act too. The Jock’s Dad serves up this gem “prepping” his son to play in front of college recruiters: “You better get 12 rebounds tomorrow night. Dad doesn’t have money for college, but you get 12 rebounds tomorrow and everything else falls into place.” No pressure though, thanks, Dad. Yeesh. In Dad’s defense, we learn early on that he is an Elvis impersonator. So it’s not like we’re expecting him to be a bastion of stability and good sense.

One more. This is from the Geek again, but it could have been said by any one of them. And was, I think, in one form or another at some point in the film. “I want somebody I can talk to; somebody I can be with and be who I really am.”

It seems to me that the main theme of this film is the search for identity and the search for belonging. I know, I know, that’s no major insight. After all, isn’t that just exactly what adolescence is all about? Of course. But that’s where the church can and should come in. The community of faith, the fellowship of the followers of God in the way of Jesus should have the best response for all the kids in this film: you belong here for in this place you will be welcomed as you are. In this place we see you as a beloved child of God, worthy of dignity and respect. And here we will help you draw close to God and help you hear God’s call on your life, a call to love God by loving others. Here, in this place, you can bring your despair because God meets us in our despair and transforms us, brings life out of that dead place. (See Andy, I was listening!)

That’s my dream for who and what the church should be for young people. For all people, for that matter.