For more than a decade, whenever I’ve had the privilege of serving alongside my friend Tim on a youth group event, we’ve talked about the importance of memory in spiritual formation. When we are together, we seek to provide experiences, and interpretation of those experiences, that allow young people to envision themselves and their worlds in new ways. Stories anchor the self in a way of looking at the world. When the world, our current situation, or some great evil threatens to did-member us, memories remind us of who we have been and can guide us into who we’d like to be.
We do not come on youth mission trips because we believe that it’s the best way for the people of New Jersey to receive skilled carpenters in their quest to rebuild from hurricane Sandy. We come because we believe that it’s a significant way to teach these young people empathy, service, and humility; it’s a path to growth for us, and a means by which we discover joy and God’s presence on the journey.
Our journey started out very rockily. After driving for about five hours through sheets of rain and intense traffic, we found ourselves on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway where the traffic was stop and go for miles. At one point, the cars in front of us stopped quickly while we were being more attentive to going – and we were involved in a three-car pile up. I’ve been leading mission trips for more than three decades, and this is the first time that we’ve ever been involved in a road accident. Fortunately, our twelve-passenger van was able to swerve out of the way, but the eight-passenger Toyota was not so lucky. There was significant damage to three vehicles, but no one in our group was injured at all. It would seem as though none of the other people were either. After a long wait to clear things with police and file the appropriate paperwork, we decided that the truck was roadworthy and we drove the last 90 miles to the coast, where we limped in for some amazing pizza at around 10:00.
In 2014, we have 15 young people and 5 adults from the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights who have traveled to Brigantine, NJ, in order to work with our friends at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help homeowners recover from the worst storm of 2012. Many of the homes on this island suffered from flooding at that time, and one of the means by which the problem is being addressed is that entire homes are being lifted ten or twelve feet into the air and placed on pilings or block foundation. The home to which we were assigned on Monday is one such home. It was a small ranch, but has now been elevated and given a basement. Our Monday task was to begin construction of a safety railing around that deck. We hit a few of the usual “first day of mission trip” snags, such as having more enthusiasm than supervision and direction, but we were so proud of the young people and their willingness to wait through that. When we finally got moving, the kids clicked as a team and made some good things happen.
After work, we walked TWO BLOCKS to the beach, where a number of our folks saw the ocean for the first time in their lives. I wish that there was a way for me to adequately describe the JOY and the CELEBRATION that went into this session of intense play. Squeals of delight rang across the waves. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “Pastor Dave, this is so amazing!” or “Pastor Dave, the ocean is so fun!”, I wouldn’t have to worry about the deductible for my auto insurance! We swam in the surf, played frisbee and paddleball, collected shells with children, and just enjoyed the gift of God’s creation and each other. I mentioned to my wife that after the events of the previous 24 hours, all I wanted to do was simply go to each young person and hug them and tell them that I loved them. It was a great, great release and celebration.
Following that we got cleaned up and headed out to a small family-run restaurant for burgers, calzones, stromboli, and ceviché (one guess as to which mission trip person ordered the pickled fish dish!) along with earnest and generous conversation. We came back to the Community Presbyterian Church of Brigantine for some incredibly rousing singing, where the theme of delight and joy was evident once more. Here were late teens asking me to play “Father Abraham” so they could get up and act out the motions and laugh and laugh and laugh in the Holy Spirit. Oh, you should have been here. It was Holy. Jeff led us through an exploration of God’s call to Jeremiah to build and refresh the community in which we live and then we played some more.
These kids will remember this for a long time.
Thanks be to God. I pray that it will help them to find the anchors of joy and hope when those qualities seem remote in days to come.