I still remember the conversation. I was talking with our associate pastor about an upcoming annual youth mission trip. We both expressed some frustration with previous years’ trips. It wasn’t so much the places we had gone or the things we had done but mostly with the way the trips didn’t seem to change anything for the people with whom we worked. We labeled them “Band-Aid” trips.
We were looking for more: more substance, more meaning, more impact. With what we wanted better defined, we began looking for something to provide that. In our early explorations, we discovered a ministry in Louisville, Kentucky, home of the PC(USA). That ministry, UrbanSpirit, seemed to fit the bill so we scheduled a conference call.
The call with the Reverend Deb Conrad was an eye-opener. This was an opportunity to engage in a much deeper way than previous destinations offered and, to be honest, presented challenges that made me nervous. We would be asked to put ourselves out there in ways that, frankly, I was not sure we’d be able to do. I take my responsibilities to the church and our families very seriously and we would ask our group of middle and high schoolers to live a week in poverty. No snack breaks, irregular meals, daily deprivation. These are not normally a part of how we had practiced mission.
If you are not familiar with UrbanSpirit, one of their ministry experiences is a week of poverty simulation. Your group is broken into smaller groups that then attempt to replicate the life of a person or family unit who is living in poverty. The reasons for this is are as varied as the reality of our world. Unlivable wages, inaccessible health care, unaffordable child care, the nightmare of incarceration, plus bureaucratic barriers to a well-put-together life create a nightmare that one can simply not work themselves out of. But we signed up.
What made this even more jarring was the city of Louisville itself. We flew into the city the night before and stayed at a church in the “good” part of the city. Tree-lined boulevards, beautiful houses, truly welcoming people were what we experienced, and it lulled us into thinking that this was going to be more than doable. The only concern was when we mentioned where we were going to be doing our mission. “That’s really not a safe part of town” was one of the comments but, hey, we’ve done this before so how hard could it be?
The next day we drove to the church where we were going to be spending the week. The drive there was eye-opening. The trees got fewer and fewer and the landscape a whole lot less familiar and before we knew it, we were in a completely different place.
That evening began with a thunder and lightning storm and a power outage. Just like that, we were on our way.
The week was brutal and getting the group across the finish line was close to impossible. I was hungry, sleeping on a concrete floor along with my kids and not sleeping at night because I was so worried. Each day was exhausting and going without food, etc. made our decision making awful. We struggled to make it through the day and would then come “home” in the evening and began to understand that what we were going through was the day-to-day reality for millions of Americans. The idea that one could simply work harder to get out of this was quickly put aside and any frustration or anger about what we were going through was also put aside in understanding that people live like this all of the time in our world. Awful!
We survived; more humble, thinner, grateful for what we had. But the trip was not yet complete. As a closing piece, John Weems, our pastor at that time, invited us to attend the Session meeting that month. We came and talked honestly and passionately about our time in Kentucky. Most of the attendees invited their parents to attend. They came and cried, openly when hearing the details of the trip. I got more than a few looks from them as they heard firsthand how hard the trip was and felt an odd mixture of guilt, pride, relief at knowing what I had put put our group through. When the meeting ended, I looked at my associate pastor who smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Somehow that made it all better. However, the best was still to come.
At that meeting and the next, the Session resolved to take what we had done and move forward with it. Based on our experience, our church leaders decided to dedicate themselves to breaking cycles of poverty. There were concrete steps to take: identify worthy community partners and help them financially, but also to provide dedicated volunteer help. While we’d always done food pantries and the like, this was a step beyond and way more than a Band-Aid.
When our youth found out about that decision, it was a profound and deeply moving moment. In that instance, the church became theirs and not just their parents!