Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip – “Katrina Wasn’t Even the Worst of It…”

It feels more often than it probably actually is but I feel that our mission trips need to respond to why we invest so much in meeting people’s physical needs “when it’s their spiritual lives that only really matter”. For me, that is very flawed statement on a number of levels but I think I understand what people are trying to say. Why help rebuild someone’s home and not share with them the hope of Jesus? It’s like saying, “I hope you enjoy going to hell in a nicer home.” Know that I, nor any sincere Christian I know, don’t actually feel that way.

But here’s what works for me. I have a hard time “compartmentalizing” life into the categories of “spiritual life”, “physical life”, “social life”, etc. They only work in terms of abbreviation and frankly, I am not always sure where my “physical life” ends and my “spiritual life” begins. That said, it’s easy for me to see how my physical well-being/state/condition affects the hazy, extremely subjective idea of my spiritual well-being/state/condition. And vice-versa. For example, when I feel physically drained, it’s less likely that I feel spiritually joyful and excited and ready to go to a Hillsong worship concert. In that instance, i’d prefer to take a nap. This is not to say that your spiritual state is entirely determined by your physical state but they certainly relate to each other. At least, that’s how I see it (and I suspect this is true for most of us after a bit of consideration).

So back to mission trips. One day Aaron and I went to see about picking up some wood from a family that was offering to donate it. We stopped at the house, knocked and a sweet southern grandmotherly woman opened the door. After the pleasantries, she offered to show us the shed and on the way she complained about the weeds, the bugs, and the mess that the backyard was in (A bit of a long story but she had rented her home to out to people Aaron knew). As she complained, I felt the need to repress my judgment of her. I mean after all we had seen, if weeds in your garden are among your chief complaints, then you may have it pretty good. Of course I knew that when we complain over trivial matters, it’s usually a front for deeper, more hurtful pains but the story works better if I just tell you that I was annoyed by her annoyance. Anyway, after finding the wood, we decided that we’d bring some students the next day to haul it off.

The next day we showed up, I knocked on the door to announce our presence but secretly hoped she wouldn’t be home (the shed was unlocked and it was very hot out). I even imagined that she may had hoped that we wouldn’t show – it would give one more thing to complain about. But when she opened the door, there were smiles from me, from her, even the weeds waived hello. The kids unloaded from the van and we created an assembly line and I was in the shed being bit by mosquitos and bugs that had mutated from who knows what but they seemed to be reneging on the offer of the wood.

We finished up, students loaded into the van and I wanted to say good-bye and thank her on behalf of Aaron and the Gathering Church. When I did so, she revealed that she had no idea who Aaron was or the church. And then it began, a real conversation, not about tenants or weeds or the heat but about life, about recovering from Katrina, about unhealthy loved ones and and about grief. Doris told me that the water had flooded 8 feet of their home and they were so lucky to have salvaged it. But after the water receded and the home was gutted, they left their home to stay with an elderly family member and have been renting out their house for the last 3 years.

I tried to encourage her but then she said, “But Katrina wasn’t the worst of it” and she started bursting into tears. We had crossed a point of no return here. Students were already in the van, I was on the porch being bitten by more bugs, and now had made an elderly woman cry. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that just less than a year after the hurricane, her 9 year old grand-daughter was killed in a parade by the float she had just jumped off of. She was assigned the job of handing out flyers and when she tried to hop back on the float, she slipped …

My heart broke and I listened to the whole story. About how she would have been turning 13 this year. About how all this happened in front of her parents who had been following the parade. About how the little girl’s dad held her until help came. About how she believed in God but she was just hurting so much.

Eventually it was my turn to say something other than, “Well gee sorry to hear all that – thanks for the wood.” So I asked her if I could pray with her. Afterwards she asked me what I did for a living. I explained. Which of course began another conversation that centered on hope and the significance of Jesus. I shared briefly about that my family had gone through tragedy too, and just recently mourned the loss of a dear uncle. I told her that I knew it wasn’t the same but in the pain, I was reminded again the importance of life and the resurrection of Jesus and the hope he offers for now and for eternity.

She hugged me. We said our goodbyes and I reminded her about Aaron, the Gathering Church and mentioned that they have a professional counseling ministry. And then I was on my way. I remember being affected by that though. Sometimes when you are the group leader, you don’t get to engage because you expend a lot of energy managing and staying ahead of the curve but I was really affected by the encounter. I forgot how to get back to the Gathering building, forgot about my mosquito bites, forgot to plan out how to pick up the Kids camp volunteers and I was grateful that Jim was driving.

I kept replaying the conversation, wondering if I had said things right. I have to admit, it surprised me how the conversation took a course of its own. It seemed easy enough, go to the house, pick up some wood from the lady that was annoyed by the weeds. Who knew. Once I regained my composure, I was really moved by how a such a simple act of picking up wood turned into a moment of expressing care. I don’t know how much different her life is from a stranger praying for her on her porch but it reinforced to me the need for making conversation and uncovering the needs of people in our communities. To me, this is an enormous part of the work of the Gospel and living missionally.

Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip – Post 2 – “We Feel Cursed”

“We Feel Cursed”
On our first trip I remember hearing people express this sentiment post-Hurricane Katrina. How could an American entire city be submerged under water? This time, we heard people express it in relation to the oil spill. “We feel cursed”, “Why does this always happen to us?”. If you ask a Pat Robertson type, he’ll say that you are cursed. Ask even an environmentalist type, and you may get a similar response. But if you ask someone like me, it’s because we live in a fallen, depraved world and we are all cursed in some way.

I know this is a pretty pessimistic post but we will never run out of bad news streaming across our televisions and computer screens. There will always be tragedy to be shocked about. There will always be many crying themselves to sleep at night. Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s me. We are all cursed.

When talking about New Orleans and the Gulf region, I often hear people ask if it’s worth rebuilding because it’s likely inevitable that they will be devastated by another natural (or man-made) disaster anyway. I would like to assume that these people never take medicine or go to the doctor when they are ill. I mean why bother, if this illness doesn’t kill them, they probably figure something else will kill them. So why concern oneself with getting better if it is inevitable that one day their body will stop working anyway? This logic sounds weak right? That’s how I feel when people wonder if we should rebuild places like New Orleans.

Like I said, we are all cursed in different ways. Some choose to deny this reality and are completely overtaken by surprise and shock when pain and evil find them. Others accept this and live their lives in such paranoia that they souls are too paralyzed to even enjoy the good days. Obviously a balance would be helpful but that’s only the start. We need hope. We need a real reason to be hopeful.

This is one of the many reasons why I am a follower of Jesus. He is the hope that can save all of us from this cursed world. He offers salvation, forgiveness, redemption and recreation. It also reinforced to me the important work that must be done in New Orleans and the Gulf Region. Not only from a physical rebuilding but including a psychological and social one and especially a spiritual rebuilding. From conversations with people, there are many groups that continue to come and serve. I found that to be encouraging. My prayer is that one day people will no longer feel exclusively cursed but rather released because of the hope of Jesus.

Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip Part 1 – High School Students Can Do Just About Anything

High School Students Can Do Just About Anything
I’ve always held this suspicion but like many great truths, I have doubted. My working theory is my perception is due to the “modes” that I find students in. There are many of these modes: apathetic, passionately motivated, committed to missing the point, brilliant, rowdy, rude, and messy, almost behaviorally perfect. There’s many more of course, and they depend on a number of circumstances. It’s interesting to note how this reflects adulthood but considerably more exaggerated in the teen years.

I hold the belief that you need to push, motivate, lead students to do great things*. In ministry it becomes difficult to do this without inflating their collective ego and revolving the group not around God but around them. Sadly, this is among the mistakes that I have made numerous times. My intentions never started out that way but between the frustrations, criticisms, weak attendance, parental complaints, compromises were made and the trajectory drifted off-course.

This was running through my mind throughout our time in New Orleans. When we first walked into the Gathering building and saw the work we needed to, I admit that I felt the feeling of intimidation. But I was not intimidated by the task, in fact, I was confident in that. I knew our team could do it (especially after last year and this year was also a strong crew), but worried our attitudes would struggle and that we would not take the work as seriously as we should. Doubt crept in, I second-guessed myself, and wondered if the numerous criticisms of student short term missions held credibility. Of course, it’s at this point in the reflection that I am supposed to say that I prayed, the heavens opened up and God gave me his divine “thumbs up” and I winked back at the clouds, filled with courage, and gave a Braveheart speech that not only impassioned our students but simultaneously stopped the oil spill.

But nothing dramatic like that happened after my prayer. In fact, I prayed several times, and as a group we prayed regularly. Perhaps the wisest part of our prayers was that we had dedicated the work and time to the Lord and asked that He would bless it. From where I stood, it was that consistent submission to God that helped us maintain focus, kept our unity, provided energy in the forms of physical strength and encouragement in the forms of words, hugs, notes and presence.

Like all mission trips, nothing ever goes as planned. We had equipment problems, transportation glitches, missing lunches, and we constantly rotated students to different job sites (from kids camp, to menial labor like moving bricks, delivering furniture, to hanging insulation). There were days we ran out of work and had too many people and then too much work and not enough people and numerous other potential distractions. We began numerous conversations with, “I can’t do anything with these 5 until those 4 finish that and then …” Then there was the heat.

To their credit, they not only kept it together and we all witnessed moments of growth. Watching that final piece of insulation go up was more than just the pride of physical labor but the result of a youth group serving with good reason (and we had quite a few ranging from Christian service to reaching out to those that are in need). As you can tell I’m very proud of our students and I was reminded to never underestimate them.

* I know some may be inclined to say that it’s not us who do the great things but God. Certainly this is true to some extent but it has some obvious shortcomings. For instance, at car wash fundraisers, when a vehicle is cleaned poorly, it seems ridiculous to shake our fists at the heavens in protest of God’s performance. It’s usually more effective to communicate to your students, “Hey we need to bend our knees and scrub.” I know that may not qualify has a “great thing” but you get my point right? We are to serve and build his Kingdom, and this is truly an extraordinary thing.

Our NOLA 2010 Mission Trip – Setting the Context – Post 1

As a believer of short term missions, each summer our youth ministry goes on a short-term mission trip. Last year we served at the All Saints AIDS Camp in Nassau Bahamas with Next Step Ministries. It was an unbelievable experience. Throughout the years, I have led teams to Estonia, the Czech Republic, and our beloved New Orleans. It was here in 2008 that we worked with a local church plant called The Gathering in Chalmatte, LA which is just east of the lower 9th ward and an area that was also completely flooded by 8-20 feet of water.

The 2008 trip was a difficult one for a number of reasons. Many of our team members were first-timers (which is wonderful too), it was extremely hot (as you would expect), our accommodations were rough (we stayed in an abandoned elementary school that was scheduled to be knocked down a few weeks after our trip). My “trip lows” included driving through the Chalmatte neighborhoods looking at all the “For Sale” signs. It still felt like a ghost town, very few businesses, no grocery stores, not even Wal Mart had moved back at this point. The few businesses I saw were a Burger King, Home Depot, a Walgreens, and numerous establishments selling daiquiris.

I also remember never being able to cool off, except during a cold shower, but immediately, the humidity reminded you that there was no refuge. I think my biggest “trip low” was on our last work day, the team made chicken pot pie as a celebratory feast. We ate at picnic tables “inside” where the cafeteria was. It was after 8pm by the time we ate, I was starving and since I wasn’t in the shower, I was of course, sweating. Being hungry, I tried to eat the pot pie, but it too was extremely hot. And between the sweat from the heat and the pot pie, my face was literally sweating into my food. It was at this point that I remembered thinking, “Who’s dumb idea was it to make chicken pot pie?” followed by “Why couldn’t Katrina had hit Maine?”.

The better moments …
… we had a great team and were joined by a few students from the church Evan Curry was serving at the time.
… we got a lot done, mudding, priming, cleaning out abandoned houses.
… realizing the enormous need of New Orleans and the entire Gulf region.
… meeting the fine people of the Gathering.

The Gathering is a church plant by a team from various parts of the US – Phoenix, Louisville, to name a few. The lead pastor, Matt and his family moved in February ’06. They were a young couple with two kids and they lived off generators for 18 months. I would have loved to have heard some of these conversations when they were asked, “Why move there … now???” But you and I know the reasons why.

For me, one of the most important parts of the trip was meeting Aaron Johnson. He’s one of the pastors of The Gathering and the way he was trying to do pastoral work really connected with me. His church office is his donated white pick-up truck and his pulpit is his tool belt and cell phone. The Gathering had just completed the purchase of an old bowling alley that had been gutted after Katrina. Their vision was to convert the building into a community center. The Phase One (of Three) vision is to have have a day care center, coffee shop, counseling center, and include a space for worship.

After our week there, we knew we had to come back and committed to returning every other year. And so on July 6th, we left Montvale to return to Chalmatte.

Our NOLA 2010 Mission Trip – Highlights – Post 2

On Friday we returned from our student mission trip to New Orleans and I find myself trying to describe this incredible experience. Once again, we had an excellent team. It was our largest which was 19 students and 4 leaders. And once again, our church and leadership were supportive and generous in allowing this opportunity.

I have not been able to really articulate my reflections for posting yet but until I do, here are a few highlights:

I really enjoyed my conversations with The Gathering Team. Had some excellent conversations with Aaron (their community pastor) and got to know Pastor Matt. He told us the story of how he and his family (with two very young children) moved 6 months after Katrina and lived off of generators for 18 months.  This decision spoke so much to their new neighbors and community.  It’s usually at this point, that the story would say, “And their church sky-rocketed in growth” but instead, they began very non-dramatically seeking intentional relationships and serving the community in any way they could.

I don’t have any pictures with Aaron (the Community Pastor of the Gathering) but I think one of the moments I will remember is the conversation with a woman who we had delivered furniture to.  It was very pastoral, very caring, and it seemed very unlikely that she would ever step foot in their church.  When I mentioned this to Aaron, he said something like, “Well, that’s not why we do it.”   That’s Christ-like.

Watching our students reading Scripture and journaling after lunch and throughout other parts of the day. After one of our work days, I walked by one room where about ten students had gathered, sat separately, silently with Bibles and notebooks open. Honestly, I didn’t recognize them at first (“Which youth group is this?” ;-) I almost took a picture but thought that was lame, I now regret it – my eyes have deceived me before.

I don’t know how many times I thought to myself, “I can’t believe he/she came on this trip. I was pretty sure they’d never come on one. And look he/she is loving it!”

Beignets from Cafe Du Monde!  Yeah we know they’re basically funnel cakes but with even more sugar and everything else that is bad for you.

It was great meeting the youth group from Richmond.  They have an awesome youth pastor and I hope our paths cross again.

This is could be a post unto itself but our youth leaders are amazing. We had some challenges on this trip and having a great leaders was huge asset. Icould not imagine them not having been there.

I didn’t think that I would ever be moved to see a Wal-Mart. I am not a big fan of the retail giant but it did bother me that it was not able to open again for four years after Katrina. Much to the joy of Chalmatte, it finally returned.  I visited almost daily to get water, cough medicine and Sharpies.  It symbolizes that more and more people and businesses are moving back to Chalmatte.  And just recently announced, they finally plans for the hospital to return.

Hearing the news that oil spill had been stopped.  As you can imagine, hearing people talk about it there is far different than talking about it in Jersey.

Siblings!  I will always remember the siblings of this trip.  We had four sets of siblings attend this year – can’t really get into it on here but there were some beautiful family moments. I am not even their Mom and I was moved.

Watching our team deal with some real adversity.  There was some real solid perseverance that led to healthy group building and Christian unity – I’m really proud of this team.

Are Short Term Student Mission Trips Worth It?

Primary Target Audience – People in my local congregation
Secondary … – Youth Ministry workers, Missionary workers of any form, and fellow Kingdom builders

Every year this question gets asked around our local church in some variation and it also gets asked all over the blogosphere and twitterverse. And every year I wonder about it too.

The short answer is yes, based on our current western evangelical, suburban climate – yes, while not perfect, they are worth it.

The comments and questions I usually see and get are among the following:
It costs so much money to send a team down there. Why not take all that money and send it to people there and have the work be done by professional workers?
I usually have two responses. Great idea, why don’t we do that all year round, collect money and send it? (insert awkward moment here).
You and I know, that money simply won’t come in to send. You may be able to raise $800-$1000 but not $15,000 (or whatever the trip in question costs). it’s because we tend to give relationally.

Second, for those who insist on seeing this in dollars and cents: Realistically, not only will you raise a fraction of what it would cost to send a team down there, I would like to make the case that money raised is a great investment in the Kingdom. I have seen and been discouraged by some stats on how the “mission trip experience” has offered little lasting help in one’s faith. Fortunately for myself, I am very suspicious of these types of stats and have also seen similar regarding the “effect” of the Sunday sermon. We still do them. Every Sunday. And we have numerous reasons, including the need for preaching and teaching Scripture to the words that can be used by the Spirit to convict, encourage, and offer the hope of Christ.

So, speaking from my experience, many (not all) of our students have been impacted in numerous long term ways. There are certain lessons that only be learned from outside of your zip code. For short-term mission trips, students are taken away from their context, away from their distractions, sharing close space with fellow youth group students and leaders. Then they are faced with situations and challenges that they simply do not get the opportunity to have. These trips create these moments and for many students, they will always value missions having experienced it personally. For some, this alters the trajectory of their lives dramatically.

This is not to say that there is no need for local missions but in fact, the opposite, as there are certain lessons that can only be learned from inside our zip code as well. Many times when seeing the needs of others in distant place we are convicted by the realization that we neglect many very near to us. As a youth ministry, this has led us to do service project weekends, In full disclosure, they are great in theory, we have been blessed by them, but we need to work on a better implementation as they have proven to be very difficult to put on during the school year. I am confident by the Spirit’s leading, we will grow in this practice,

Another aspect I like is the camaraderie that we enjoy on these trips. Students have conversations with people they have “only seen around on Sunday morning”, they reconcile differences, they see each other differently. Similar to the “teen summer camp experience”, being away provides the opportunity for that. This is also important for me as a youth pastor. This is literally the most time that I get to spend with students, the only time that I get to engage in deeper conversations with some and important times for some of our youth leaders to truly connect with the group. Again, the challenge is applying this throughout the year.

Perhaps another reason that is largely ignored is the importance that our teams serve to either a local church or missions organization. I realize this can open an entirely separate discussion altogether but it seems to me that less gets done if we do not send teams. Again because relationships and student involvement create so much motivation and energy. That said, I am very much aware of the stories of some organizations that have used groups as either tourists or as sources of revenue to repaint the same wall summer after summer and these accounts always grieve me. But it seems for the vast majority, these weekly teams serve and build credibility to these local churches and agencies and I love that aspect of the larger Church Body serving in this big-picture way.

Another feature of the trip that I have come to recognize as been the decision-making process that the student and their families go through to commit to the trip. Many choose between summer jobs, parents plan vacations around them, and every time someone asks, “What will you be doing over there?”, the student has the opportunity to search their soul of why they are actually going. The decision making process and the pre-trip reparation should not be underestimated.

There are certainly problems and challenges for student mission trips, believe me I know. Among them are behavioral problems, an inflated sense of ego (“I’m going to save these people”), the danger of categorizing missional-living as only a “summer thing” that can only be done proxy and a few other concerns that maybe I can share another time. But these are not reasons to not do mission trips, they are reasons to do them better.

To combat our collective pride and to maintain focus on why/what we are doing, we have had nightly devotions and debriefings, Scripture and journal reflection times, and have been diligent in creating a servant-hearted culture on these trips. We have even gone so far as adopting a motto, “Me First!!”. When we ask for 3 volunteers to do the glamorous jobs of cleaning the dinner tables, or filling the water coolers, or cleaning the bathrooms, there ought to be a rush of volunteers yelling, “ME!” first. We get the point when we have to turn down five volunteers because three volunteered so quickly.

Are mission trips worth it? Yes, in our current context, they are very beneficial and very much worth the cost, time, and energy expended. For more, I highly recommend the dvd curriculum Round Trip and David Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open. Please feel free to comment in polite disagreement or add your concern, I have come to enjoy this conversation.

Nassau '09 – All Saints Camp – Post 2

Yesterday I wrote a lengthy post of our time in Nassau. Today I find myself thinking of how we got there. I keep finding the beginning of this story fascinating because so many things in life seem rather arbitrary. Don’t read that as “random” but “arbitrary”.  Yes, I try to be live my life led by the Holy Spirit but not being a subscriber of the “every moment of your life is foreordained because it has a reason so just set the soul on Christ-control so God can be sovereign and glorified”, I find myself reflecting on the roads taken and untaken.

In some ways, this story begins at Youth Specialties’ National Youth Workers Conference (NYWC).  Most years, I attend this and among the great speakers and seminars found at this event is the Exhibition Hall. There was a time when I didn’t appreciate it because I found too many lame booths and I’m snobby to that sort of thing (but don’t be upset with me, it’s how the good Lord ordained it). Maybe I matured a little, maybe the booths got better but all I know is that this place became an excellent place to find mission trip organizations and so for the last few years I found our trip there. That’s not to say that they were all good organizations (I believe one is being run by the devil disguised as southern baptists) but you leave a time and place like that with better insight than clicking through sites and reading through brochures.  Among the speakers, seminars, music and their new format, you should add this reason and go.  If it weren’t for our new baby coming this fall, I’d be there.

This past November at YS Pittsburgh (the best one I’d been to by the way), I met one of the founders of Next Step Ministries – Nick Cocalis. He said they were a new ministry, born out of their youth ministry that now had 4 sites, the newest was their greatest need – Nassau. I told him that it was going to be tough for me to fundraise for the Bahamas as I already have a few church-goers that are suspicious of my “glamorous lifestyle”. He continued by explaining it was an AIDS Camp that had been neglected for years and they needed a lot of help. We talked more and I walked away thinking something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something like that?”

After returning home, I remember sitting in my office filing some of the brochures  and creating a “Top-5”. There are many solid missions organizations, numerous  excellent causes, and I believe that God is at work in most of them. But for me,      the AIDS pandemic kept me focused on Next Step. It seemed to me that whenever  we talk about AIDS, we think about Africa, and whenever we talk about places like  the Bahamas, we talk about vacation. So to put it crudely, you are even less  fortunate to get HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean then you are in Africa.

There are statistics that reveal there are about 22 million people who suffer from HIV in Africa while there are approximately 250 thousand that have the HIV virus in the Caribbean area. It seemed clear that we weren’t going to Africa this year and slowly and slowly, the Next Step AIDS Camp opportunity seemed clearer. More confirming to me was how underwhelming that statistic seemed.  Meaning most would feel that statistic is not impressive enough in a tragic sort of way because the number isn’t bigenough.  But even if it wasn’t, to me it was another group of people that represented the “least of these”.  But here’s the other thing, the number proportionately is huge!  The Caribbean is the second-most affected region in the world while sub-Sahara Africa is the first.

Here’s the perspective that made sense to me.  I live in Bergen County, NJ which has a population of about 90,000 people which is about 3 times the population of the Bahamas.  My county reports about 3000 HIV cases (in 2007) while the Bahamas reports a little over 6000 cases.  So the Bahamas has a third of my county’s population but twice as many cases.

To be honest, I didn’t have any cut-off numbers as l mentioned some of this is arbitrary and stats are not always the best way to determine the legitimacy of a cause.   What they did for us was provide context and perspective.  Further it was helpful for me to those that speak in the language of stats and figures.  Anyway, this is part of what I shared with those around me and then to our sr. high group and eventually to the church.  Most people got it, supported it, and loved it.  Today, I find myself so grateful to how this all came to be.

If you are interested, you can get started here at Next Step’s intro page for the All Saints AIDS Camp.

Nassau’09 – All Saints AIDS Camp – Post 1

Last Thursday, we returned from our mission trip to Nassau, Bahamas and here’s my attempt to try to summarize.  Being a pastor, I am prone to exaggeration but as sincere as I can be, it was a truly an amazing experience. Having had great mission experiences to places like the Czech Republic, New Orleans, Estonia, the “amazing-ness” of this experience came a bit unexpected to me because to get to the point, if you leave for a mission trip wanting to serve and share with others and you have realistic expectations, you generally have a great experience.

It’s on these trips that we are able to detach ourselves from our private self-serving worlds, bond with those we came with, love our new friends and take part in the Mission. Many times, the destination of the place and the particular mission actually become secondary because the beauty of the time is found in serving the Kingdom in a humble, loving Christ-like way. And for many of us, this is unfortunately too rare of an occurrence (I have more to say on that but this post will be long enough as it is).

Maybe what was so unique about this experience was so many  incredible aspects coming together. We attended YS’s DCLA (post  coming one day) from Friday-Monday (July 10-13) and our students  loved it. We spent the remainder of Monday sightseeing and woke up  early Tuesday and flew out of Reagan International. Generally after  you  attend a big conference event you want to go to do some thing  instead  of returning home, so for us, this worked well.

Our trip was to do some construction work at the All Saints AIDS  Camp. All Saints literally started as a leper colony that eventually became a refuge to those with HIV/AIDS who had no other place to go. Among the most surprising aspects of our time there was for a place that had to deal with the passing of their residents, death seemed like a distant topic to them. In fact, I had to remind myself of this terrible reality throughout the week. More of the focus was on being intentional with the time and opportunities that we had left. This made construction on these new cabins and paving a new sidewalk not only more tolerable but important.

Let’s be clear here, the work sucked. It was extremely hot, (90’s for the first few days we arrived), and extremely humid. Then there was the fact that I never learned how to mix cement by hand in my honors classes in high school and neither did my students. We were broken up in two groups, one for the new cabins and the other for the sidewalk. I learned that I’m better with a power saw than I am with a hammer and nails. I also found a place to vent my frustration with parents who pick up their kids late from activities and those that Google criticism of the emergent church as opposed to reading the actual books for themselves. That place is breaking up old sidewalk with a sledge hammer. Indeed it was good therapy and I’ve returned to Jersey in search of sidewalks that I can … uhh … nevermind.

Anyway, the work was tough on our students but they held it together. One girl admitted that she despised the type of work she was made to do. That was until she met a lady at the camp and saw how hard it was for her to walk down the sidewalk. She said, she really needed to talk to her and then to see it because her attitude completely changed.

We had a great team of students that got along great with each other which is  hard  to do when you’ve been together for 2 weeks, exhausted, hungry, and  feeling  disgusting most of the time. There was no need to discipline anyone  which  allowed me to take on a different role than I normally get to do – a  friend. Our  leaders did a great job as well. Then there was our new friends from  Next Step.

The Next Step team was absolutely amazing for us. Andy was the site manager of  Nassau who carried so much responsibility but didn’t let it bog him down. He was  very sensitive to our needs and changes of plans. Having just completed law  school, I found it to be an odd thing for a him to be working at an AIDS  Camp. A  Further, he seemed to be a truthful person (perhaps that didn’t help in law school  but he’s an amazing person). There was Dennis who was in charge  of construction and he’s good at it. I couldn’t believe how patient he was with all of us. As a team we always found creative ways to make his work harder but he never got annoyed with us. Sonja was the worship leader/speaker for the week. She did a great job leading and speaking each night and most days she was out mixing cement with us. I look forward to seeing her speak at a YS event one day. Last but certainly not least was Jessica. I forget what Jessica’s job was supposed to be because she did just about everything. She cooked, did construction, joked around, visited the residents with us, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who moved the clouds the one day we got off to a rainy start. What’s interesting is that they each grew up in different parts of the world, Mexico, Australia, Nicaragua, and … Wisconsin. We all felt that we made new friends this week.

The most moving part of our week was spending time with the residents of the AIDS Camp. Many of them had committed their lives to Christ some time ago and had some sense of joy. We were all moved by a woman named Moxy whose body was clearly failing but whose spirit was so alive. Then there was brother Vince who lost his eye sight while serving in prison but was committing Scripture to memory by listening to cds. He used to be a tour guide on the island and one of the most beautiful moments that none of us will ever forget was when we picked him up on our free day and asked him to give us a tour of the island. They told him where he was and then he would start the tour. It was unbelievable.

There were a lot of other beautiful moments as well, from how we handled disagreements to the children’s worship service we did at the Children’s Emergency Hostile. Throughout our time, we painted nails, handed out flip-flops and toiletries we had collected from back home and in short, learned to get over ourselves. It’s a hard lesson to bring back on the plane but I was encouraged by how much our students grappled with the life they wanted to live and the life they had. Life in the Kingdom of Jesus is not easy and I believe this week, the window opened a little wider for us to see and experience it.

Recapping Our Service Project Weekend – Post V

 On Sunday we worshipped at the Well in Feasterville (again with Evan’s group).  When  we were in between churches, my wife and I would worship there.  I have a great deal  of respect for Todd and Gary (the pastors) and loved the community and vision of The  Well. 

Generally, Todd and Gary take turns preaching.  This Sunday was an exception however.  A woman gave the message!  (I hear you gasping).  I had to laugh because in school we just read Community 101.  Gilbert Bilezakian would have been so proud.  Frankly, she did very well although she wasn’t very dynamic  (not a criticism).  Her sermon had fantastic content, out of Ephesians 1, and she quoted Dallas Willard.  I can’t complain and regarding a woman preacher – so far, I haven’t heard any complaints from my church!  We’ll see but certainly the best woman I heard preach since … hmmm …. trying to remember the last time I heard a woman say something from the platform that wasn’t a song or an announcement … wait, wait, … got it – “missionary moment”.   Hmmm …


Recapping our Sr. High Service Project Weekend – Post IV

That evening, we went to Bethel Church in Philly to hear Shane Clairborne.  Our students connected with a lot of what he had to say. Still waiting for them to digest it all bc I am eager in hearing their thoughts and reactions.

To say that you can’t agree with everything Shane says is about as obvious as saying that I breathe oxygen.  No one should agree with everything any moral says.  That said, I personally have a great respect for Shane’s ideas and it keeps growing.   One day, I may summon the courage to express my personal differences and questions I have with some of Shane’s ideas.  But if you asked me, should we live more like Joel Osteen or Shane then I’d throw out my hair gel, smash my LCD, give my possessions and my teeth to the poor so that no part of me would have mistaken for any influence coming from Lakewood.  (Don’t be offended, this is hyperbole.  If you are legalistic, you may have misunderstood some of our best passages of Scripture, you walking gravestone).  

So where was I?  Oh, it was good.  I took notes and plan on sharing more later.

One last thing, I’d like to express my admiration to Bethel Church for taking the heat from those I would call “narrow-minded”.  It takes some courage for a conservative senior pastor of a conservative church to bring on a guy like Shane who isn’t as conservative (although I’m not real sure that “liberal” is an appropriate term for him).  Lastly, at the church (which was converted from a movie theater) had a little book-store area and among the 30 or so books was Brian McLaren’s, Everything Must Change.  I was encouraged by Bethel.