As I sit in my air-conditioned house and reflect on the week, I am changed. I am humbled. I am inspired. This past week, I joined my daughter’s youth group on their mission trip to Nashville, TN.
I wasn’t supposed to be on this trip, but a friend on mine asked me to fill in for her because of a family matter.
There are no coincidences, people. God knows exactly what He is doing, and He knew I would say “yes,” because I rarely say, “no.”
So, I dropped off my daughter on Sunday and joined the group myself on Tuesday. The main purpose of this trip was to host a Vacation Bible School in a poverty-stricken apartment complex, and my task was to handle the Imagination Station.
The first day, my two teenage helpers and I painted faces and arms and hands, all the while trying to relay the message that God doesn’t care what we look like. He created us and love us no matter what.
I must say the kids loved the paint, but I am not sure the message resonated over the noise of the little plastic containers holding a rainbow. We did it, though. We made it through 4 rotations of Imagination Station.
Dear God, please let us make a difference. Please speak through me, act through me so that I can be the witness you would have me be.
After lunch, it was reading time, and my new friend JaSona picked me to be her partner.
Amazement squashed pre-judgment, and this young, bristly 7th grader read to me with pride and joy and like her life depended on it. She told me she loved to read but didn’t have any chapter books of her own, and when I asked her if I could mail her some, her face dropped. “No,” she said, “because we will probably be moving.”
After reading and a rousing game of 9-square, we left for the day, but there was more to do under a bridge.
Every single Tuesday–rain, shine, or snow–volunteers converge under the Jefferson Bridge to feed the homeless and provide praise and a message. I’m not sure our kids from their middle-class, suburban communities were prepared for this experience, so “Baptism by Fire” it was.
Apparently, I wasn’t quite ready either because I as stood where I was told to stand, waiting in the assembly line of “food deliverers,” the Spirit seemed to envelope me with empathy and love and sadness and emotions I cannot put into words.
As I tried to mask the ocean filling my eyes, my daughter came over to me and said, “Mom, are you crying?” I quietly told her, “yes,” and she smiled and chuckled. She and my oldest daughter have a running joke about my sentimentality.
However, this was different, and I couldn’t explain it to her right then because we needed to focus on serving and following instructions, doing our part.
It was there under that bridge, though, with the dust of the gravel swirling around us and the barrage of traffic zooming above us that I felt like everyone–like the homeless, some even with children in tow, like our teenagers, possibly frightened and confused, like the apartment complex kids fighting for daily survival, like my Daddy in his last moments of life.
The change, the humbling, the inspiration was pouring over me, and I knew I was here for a reason. It wasn’t for my friend who needed me to fill in. It was for me, for I needed this to continue my journey, to continue my growth, to strengthen my resolve.
After we finished serving plates, we joined our guests under the bridge for the message. As I surveyed the seats, looking for my daughter MJ, I heard our mission leader James’ words, “Go sit down by someone and talk to them.”
I found one open seat, in the back, at the end of the row, by a man named Andrew, and in between the preaching and singing, and my stomach of butterflies, I talked to him.
He shared how he has battled mental illness his entire life, making it difficult to hold down a job, but he did have a place to stay for now. I told him I would add him to my prayers, and he thanked me.
I wanted to say more. I wanted to pray with him right there under that bridge, but I wasn’t bold enough to ask. I wasn’t bold enough to ignore my rule-following, polite nature and pray for this man in the moment because it might interrupt the preaching and he might say “no.”
And so, when the singing and preaching and praying was over, I told this man Andrew it was nice meeting him and offered him my hand. He seemed so surprised but offered his back, and we both shook with firmness and compassion.
As Wednesday greeted us, we started our day with devotion, specifically 1 John, and I reminded myself before setting off on day two of imagination station that He who is in me is greater than he who is in this world, and that God is love and I am to love all people.
This was a perfect reminder for our experiment today–a bottle with vinegar, a balloon, and baking soda. When the baking soda inside the balloon reacts with the vinegar, an explosion in the bottle happens causing the balloon to fill with air.
JaSona, my 7th grade friend, showed up again with the same clothes and the same paint on her skin from yesterday, but it didn’t matter. She showed up, and she hung at my side most of the day–except when she had her 6-month-old baby sister hanging on her hip.
We all “passed the baby” the rest of the week so that JaSona could have her own experience and take a break from being “sister-mom.”
As for the experiment, the kids loved it, and they even seemed to embrace the message: No matter how bitter or dirty or angry or hurt you are, when you allow God’s love to fill you, an explosion happens! Only you can choose how much Love you allow inside of you.
I reminded the kids that this same effect–this explosion–is also possible when you allow the opposite of Love to fill you, except this is explosion will be filled with hate and destruction and hurt and pain.
The last day of our mission trip started again with 1 John and the reminder that our faith–if we commit to it– can overcome this world filled with angst, inequality, and loss.
On the way to the apartment complex–with a few kids, including my own, and a leader in my car–Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” came over the radio. If you know me, then you know the volume within my vehicle quickly increased!
JT and our entire car–including the college-student leader Turner who says he’s introverted–belted out the lyrics and danced in our buckled seats. Since the tune was still going, I passed the apartment complex and pulled over in an abandoned gas station to get out of my restraint and “dance, dance, dance,” and I heard my MJ say, “This is my mom,” and it made me beam even brighter.
You see, we were now all armed–on our last day–with a “little sunshine in our pocket” and a “song in our feet, ” and we couldn’t stop the feeling! We needed this. I needed this, and I heard God in my heart remind me to keep His sunshine shining, to keep His song alive, to dance and love and never abandon the feeling with which He has infused me.
At the Imagination Station on this last day, we introduced oil and water and food coloring. As we added oil to the water, the kids quickly saw that they did not mix, that the oil sat on top of the water.
We explained the scientific reason for this but also introduced Adam and Eve and how making wrong choices can separate us for God’s love.
Then, the kids picked colors to add to their oil and water that was together but still separate. They noticed how the color dropped straight through the bottom, through the oil and through the water.
We told them to tightly put the lids on their bottles and shake, shake, shake!
Despite wrong choices separating us from God, He is always there, and if we ask for His love and forgiveness, He will fill our lives with color, color that can penetrate any separation of oil and water, good and bad, hate and love.
When our VBS activities were over, we left to prepare for our return which would involve a block party for the families of the complex, complete with games, a slip and slide, music, food and fun.
At the block party, one of the girls fell on the slip and slide and screamed in pain. No one could get ahold of her mom; she wasn’t there. It shocked me back to my childhood when no one was there for me, so I chose to stay with this girl–even though she did have an adult show up for her.
I stayed, and I prayed–silently and then quietly out loud.
When the adult left for a time and before the ambulance arrived, I stayed on my knees but put my forehead to this girl’s forehead and my hand on her face. I talked to her through her sobs and told her to give her pain and fear to God, that He will take it. He will make all of this better.
The ambulance came, and I later learned that this girl who fell on the slip and slide is okay. Thank you, God.
Some would say she didn’t need to go to hospital, that she was fine and was over-exaggerating or just scared. This all may be true, but I choose to believe that this young teenager–with no parent to comfort her when she fell–will remember God’s comfort. It may not be today or tomorrow. It may be 2 years from now when she’s alone again and hurt and remembers that she is never alone.
Once the ambulance drove away, my new friend James and I commenced rolling up the plastic of the slip and slide. I remember James–perhaps to be a gentleman– hollering to one of the teenage boys to help him put the plastic into the dumpster. I told James that I was already dirty so why couldn’t I do it. He looked at my arms covered in the wet, muddy grass from rolling up the plastic, and he said ok.
In this final hour or so at this block party in this apartment complex filled with its one-bedroom apartments beyond code capacity, I remind myself that I need to get dirty more often. I need to ask my own community what I can do right in my own backyard to get dirty.
For you see, after I spent the week with church family and other mothers’ children, I remind myself that serving them a burger at the end and going home to my charmed life is not enough. I am thankful for this experience and commit to doing more.
Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path.”