2018 Youth Mission #5

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective. This is the final update from this year’s trip.

For as long as I can remember, if someone asks me “What is the purpose of Youth Group?”, one of my top three answers has been “making memories”.  When I say that, I don’t mean to imply that spiritual growth is not essential or that passing on the faith is unimportant.  To the contrary, I am deeply convinced that the Christian Faith is, in the words of the late Dale Milligan, “better ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.”  We help form the spiritual lives of the children we love by enculturation – by helping them not only to know the story, but to see how they can fit into the story.  And so each mission trip provides us with an amazing chance to create both individual and shared memories of sacred space, time, and stories.

One of the ways that we did this on Friday was to spend a few hours in the morning tending to some last-minute details on our work site and then taking advantage of our proximity to Niagara Falls by visiting one of the great wonders of the world together.  We drove through the heart of Buffalo (remembering several mission trips to that fair city in previous years) and then sailed on the “Maid of the Mist”, hiked up the steps, pondered our own insignificance as well as the amazing power and majesty of God (no surprise that Marla opted to read Psalm 29 in our devotion), and laughed an awful lot.  In the process, I trust, we added to our storehouse of shared experiences and celebrated the connections that place us in each other’s memories.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not convinced that too many of the young people at whose sleeping forms I’m now staring while I pen these lines will process this in this way – but I am sure that they will at some point.

The reason I’m sure of that is because of what happened after we got back from the Falls.  We enjoyed some wonderful tacos, and then sat together for our final debriefing time.  It is a tradition for us to invite the seniors to address the group at the end of each mission trip.  There are often a lot of tears, and Friday night was no exception.  It was wonderful and humbling to hear Tommy, McKenna, and Lindsay  talk about the ways in which connection with this group has been formative and life-giving over the years.  Each of them chose to speak of Youth Group as a place of safety and joy in a world that is often thin in both of those places; each pointed to stories of previous trips or experiences as evidence of God’s willingness to meet them in this context.  I was filled with pride and joy as I watched them share with their younger sisters and brothers – and as the younger ones soaked in the affirmation, challenge, and gratitude that was shared.

Each morning I wake up at the old-man-ish hour of six and write this.  This year, since we’re all in one room for our sleeping, eating, and recreation, I am watching them sleep each day.  It’s not creepy.  I look at the young person who was paralyzed with fright earlier this week, but worked through it; at a girl who found the bravery and the courage to step outside her comfort zone in service or speaking; at someone who is here for the first time but has, I hope, developed some bonds that will last during a difficult future; at several young people who go to great lengths to be a part of the youth group experience each week; at the one who has been told every day that she/he is insignificant and doesn’t matter; at the one who is always measured by what she/he achieves or does, but finds in Youth Group a chance just to be and be loved anyway…  I am filled with gratitude for my brother Tim Salinetro, who has come on more trips like this with me than I can even count, and I marvel at the ways that he opens path of joy for young people… I celebrate the gifts of Marla Barrett, who thinks, “why wouldn’t I spend a week with these kids two months before I get married” and does so with great humor and deep passion… I’m glad for Josie Miller and her willingness to dive into this craziness as she offers herself with joy and encouragement each day.

I say, not as often as I should, that it’s a good life, and we ought to be grateful.  Today, I am deeply grateful, and also hopeful.  Thanks for your prayers and support on behalf of these young people!

Maddy and Lindsay taping the drywall while sharing a smile…

Marla sealing the joints

Evan helping to supervise the clean-up at the church

Our team on the finished wheelchair ramp

One view from “The Maid of the Mist”

… and another…

We were told that “niagara” is derived from a native word meaning “the water thunders”. I believe it!

This is an inadequate photo of a sacred circle – a place of trust, confidence, joy, hope, gratitude – and now, for some – memory.

2018 Youth Mission #4

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

Have you ever planned a large meal and set out to cook four or five different things, hoping and planning for them to all be done around the same time, but then you discovered that your oven wasn’t large enough, or the fruit wasn’t quite ripe so you had to make another trip to the market, or whatever…and the end result was that the veggies were ready at 3 and the main dish was still in the oven at 7?

Welcome to the Youth Mission Trip, Thursday edition.

Yikes.  We started the day with a plan to divide and conquer – we’d finish up the railing, and then we’d hang a little drywall and even start to tape and mud it.  We’d do some cleaning and be ready to face our last day with a ton of energy and time.

uh-huh.

Some of the group went outside and worked hard to complete the deck construction.  The railings, steps, and a few other support pieces were installed and finished, and wow does it look good AND functional.

Some of the group stayed inside and discovered a few things:

  • rehabbing an old building is always harder and longer than starting from scratch
  • there is no such thing as a 90° angle in this building
  • Dave is not as good at electrical work as he might lead himself to believe
  • 4 x 8 sheets of drywall are really heavy when you’re trying to hold them over your head
  • You can step out of your comfort zone and live to tell the tale
  • even hard jobs are way better when you are working with people who demonstrate grace and encouragement

The end result was that some of our team finished up in the early afternoon, and they were able to get in some pool time or some nap time.  A few of us, however, were working until 6:30.  It was wonderful to see how the young people encouraged each other, and those who stayed were gracious in their sending off of those who swam, while those who swam were encouraging, realizing that you can only fit so many people into one bathroom at one time anyway…

I was really proud of all of our kids today.

We enjoyed a delicious meal of barbequed chicken and corn on the cob (thanks Josie!) and then Tim led us in a discussion about having the power to make choices for ourselves concerning the ways that we speak toward and treat each other.  It was particularly moving because he rooted that in a story of when he was on a Mission Trip and some key adults helped to shape his thinking.  Our day ended with a screening of the recently released Lake of Betrayal (trailer below), a documentary about the impact of the Kinzua Dam project on the Seneca people.

Here are a few images of our day.  Thanks for the prayers!

Tommy hangs the ceiling board

Lindsay and Maddy make sure we put the screws in the right place!

Marla trims the next piece

Wait, the black wire goes where?

This photo was taken at around 5:30 pm. Look at that smile!

This is what it looks like when the final piece is in place!

Setting the steps in place

Rachele and Karlena make the cut

Evan adds some finishing touches to a great project

Karlena and Josie making sure the railing is safe.

2018 Youth Mission #3

Background: On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

When I first started leading these trips with kids, we called them “Work Camps”.  We did that, well, because we thought that the most important thing we would do would be to “work”.  And so we bundled up the vans and we headed off to someplace exotic like Slippery Rock, PA or Tennessee or Maryland and we told the kids that they had a duty to work.  We scrubbed, we painted, we dug, we drywalled.  And, every now and then along the way, we studied the Bible, sang some songs, and worked on relationships within our group.

Gradually, though, we came to see that maybe it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to simply have a bunch of strangers show up in a place, work, and then leave – still as strangers.  We didn’t want to train ourselves to be “helpers” who took time out of our busy schedules to go and be nice to some poor soul who was down on his/her luck and lend a hand because we were so stinking nice.  We have been growing in our ability to see ourselves as partners, who have something to offer in terms of time and energy and relationship, and who are in a position to receive something in terms of knowledge or energy or skills or relationship.  And so we call them “Mission Trips”, because we assume that God is already at work in Slippery Rock, Tennessee, Maryland, or wherever… and it’s our job to get in on what God is already doing and offer who we are.

Wednesday would have been a spectacular “fail” had we been operating under the old “Work Camp” model.  We didn’t do a blessed thing (full truth: Lindsay and McKenna helped Tim and me to install TWO furring strips for drywall….) but it was a phenomenal day.  We took the morning easy, and then we traveled to the other part of the Seneca Reservation – the Allegany territory – and visited the brand-new-not-even-open-to-the-public-yet Tribal Museum and Cultural Center.  We had a private tour with a team of guides and really learned quite a lot of the Seneca story, and are deeply grateful to the folks within the tribe who helped us gain access to this experience.

We took some time off to wander through an Antique Mall in Salamanca, and then headed home to a phenomenal dinner cooked for us by members of the Wright Memorial church. Afterwards, we had an extensive and informational presentation on some of the Seneca experience by Mr. Rick Jemison, who serves as one of 16 Tribal Councilors for the Seneca Nation of Indians.  He brought along a number of items that helped us to grasp some of what these folks have been through, and he and some of the other elders who were here shared very moving personal testimony as to how they have been affected and shaped by both the adversity and the opportunities that life on the reservation has brought to them.  Some of us listened to a wonderful tribute to the Seneca as sung by the late Johnny Cash, entitled “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow.” You can hear that by clicking on the link below…

We ended our day with our typical debriefing session – singing, laughing, looking at photos… and we talked a little about the story of Daniel, who along with his countrymen was kidnapped and removed from his home.  Although Nebuchadnezzar tried to give these young people new identities (new name, new language, new food, etc.), Daniel refused to wear the labels that someone else had put on him.  He maintained that God alone had the right to name and shape and form him.  We talked about the fact that most of us have people who would be more than happy to tell us who we are and what we are about; that people will judge us for our worst mistake or try to tear us apart if we let them – but that each of us can choose to wear the identity that God is offering us as his beloved children.

Here are a few photos… and as always, thanks for the prayers.  Astute observers will note that there is one more participant on the trip: our friend Karlena, who was unable to join us when we departed on Sunday, met us in Salamanca, and we’re the better for it!

Wake up, sunshine! Another day in paradise…

At the Museum and Cultural Center

Listening to a story of the creation from the Seneca perspective – one that emphasizes community and the responsibility of all to participate.

Lacrosse is a game that originated with the Native Americans, and there is an entire display on the nature of that experience.

There were several cases full of items depicting Native Americans in unflattering and untrue ways. We talked about how it must feel to have other people attempt to describe you in words that aren’t true…

Doug is carving our turkey…

Eileen making the fry bread using corn flour, which is traditional here.

Pastor Mary Lee whipping up some mashed potatoes

Rick shows us a wampum belt depicting the treaty between the Seneca and the Whites.

Rick sharing with our group

Some of the items Rick brought to show us.

2018 Youth Mission #2

The young people from the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are engaged in our annual pilgrimage in mission and service.  This year, we are spending time with some friends in Western New York, particularly in the communities that comprise the territories belonging to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Our second day looked a lot like the first, at least to start: we got really dirty pulling down old drywall, digging in the mud, and doing what we can to help the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church become a little bit more structurally hospitable.  We continued to work on the wheelchair ramp as well as a few projects indoors.

Because this church building, like most, doesn’t have shower facilities, we had to go down the street to the Cattaraugus Community Center, a fantastic resource for the residents of this community.  In there we saw great recreational rooms (like an indoor lacrosse field, basketball, weight room, and more) and, most importantly – showers.  Some of us showered more quickly than others, which led to a certain amount of waiting around, which led to…well, photos below.

When we arrived on Sunday, one of the neighbors invited us to a “revival” that his church was conducting on the other portion of the reservation – in the town of Salamanca (about an hour away).  We assumed, naively, that it would be an opportunity to immerse ourselves more deeply in the Seneca community, customs, and religious outlook.  We were wrong. We arrived at the Central Street Baptist Church and we had an amazing cultural experience – just not the one we’d expected.

We’d been told to arrive at 6 for a community meal.  Being led by folks like me, we got there hungry at 5:58.  The church was locked up tighter than a drum.  As we wandered around, a car stopped, and it turned out that it was the Pastor of the church.  He was asking if we were lost.  No, I said, we were here for the revival.  He said, “Really? Are you sure?”  It turns out that it was not supposed to start until 7 and there was no meal.  So, off to Little Caesar’s for a quick bite of pizza, and then back to the church.  There was a yellow striped tent set up out back and a few dozen hardy souls gathered underneath it as we listened to the fiery (and, the kids would have me tell you, LOUD) message offered up by “Preacher Don”, a wiry Southern Baptist evangelist from Virginia (or maybe West Virginia).  I’m not kidding you, except for the fact that the music was done from an iPad via bluetooth – it was like a trip back 125 years.

I’m proud of the ways that our team not only dealt with the challenges and disappointment of seeing their proposed trip into Native American spirituality be transformed into an entirely different experience, but at the ways that they were able to thoughtfully reflect on which aspects of Preacher Don’s message resonated with their experience and which were foreign to them.  We gathered after the day for our time of de-brief and it was so encouraging to hear them be intentional and thoughtful about the things we’d said, heard, and done throughout the day.  Thanks for your prayers!

Here are a few images of our time thus far…

Greeting some of the members of Wright Memorial Church

McKenna gets dirty for the cause… ‘Cause there ain’t no way Pastor Dave was fitting under there to put that board on!!!!

The team gets a lesson in using a jigsaw

Lindsay trimming it up…

…and Christian…

Danielle tackles the jigsaw

Alyssa and Marla framing in the closet (note the manicure!)

Josie sizes things up

Tom discovers that working in churches can be, well, dirty business…

The ramp is coming together

One of us found waiting for the others to finish showering to be, well, a little bit boring…

Dinner time!

The Central St. Baptist Church, with the tent out back

Hearing a poem by a congregation member

Preacher Don lays it on us

2018 Youth Mission #1

On Sunday, August 5, a team of young people and adults from the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights journeyed about three hours north to the community of Irving, NY, where we will spend the week in relationship with our friends from the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church. This tiny congregation is located in the midst of the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation and we are eager to not only come alongside these folks in service, but to also learn more about what the world looks like from this perspective.

We arrived on Sunday and set up shop in the church, which is where we are going to be sleeping, eating, and working all week. We inflated our mattresses, set out our tools, and met our hosts.  Prior to bed, Marla led us in a devotional, we did some singing and talked about our hopes for the week.

Monday morning dawned clear and sunny, and it only got hotter as the day went on.  Half of our team began the work of demolishing some deteriorated walls on the inside of the building in preparation for a CHUP-esque makeover.  It was messy work to be sure, but our team tore down drywall and ceiling tile with vigor.  The rest of our group started work on a small porch and a wheelchair ramp in the rear of the building.  In both instances, we had the opportunity to learn new skills and practice some which have been dormant for a while.

The day got hotter and hotter, and by four pm we were delighted to be able to knock off work and drive a little further into the reservation to take advantage of the swimming pool operated by the Seneca Nation. In addition to providing us an opportunity cool off and play, this is the site where we’ll be showering all week as well.

Our evening included a delicious spaghetti dinner, an exploration of Ezekiel 37 with a discussion about the nature of hope, and some amazingly appropriate ice cream cones.  It was a great beginning to what we hope will be a great week!  Here are a few photos…

Removing old wallboard

Hey, Tim, that must weigh 80 pounds. Let me show you how to carry it…

Show us how it’s done, Evan…

Who ARE those people?

A refresher on the workings of the power saw…

These four young women installed the decking on our 6 x 8 platform essentially by themselves… Tim…um…”helped”.

Alyssa setting up the framing.

Making sure it’s all square…

Does this guy do ANY work?

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about…

What a great way to end the afternoon!

So thanks for all your prayers – we’ll keep you posted in the days to come!

2017 Youth Mission Update #4

Our week of service, learning, fellowship, and fun in the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is nearly complete, and we finished strong!

Evan starts the demolition of the steps.

Thursday was, like most other days this week, a rainy day.  Yet this team of young people worked through the showers to dissemble a rickety set of steps on Miss Charlene’s home and install a safe, sturdy, spacious entryway for her and her family to use.  Everyone did something – in fact, I can’t recall seeing more people at work on an area that was approximately 5′ x 5′ in my life!

We got to be expert diggers and rock removers on this trip!

Katie using a “Saws-All” for the first time

While we were hard at work outside, Miss Charlene was hard at work inside, and at lunch she treated us to an amazing meal of what she called “Cherokee Tacos” – the “shell” was a delicious fry bread, and the fillings consisted of lettuce, tomato, cheese, beef, beans, cucumbers… wow! It was delicious.

At the end of our work day we were further surprised to be called onto the porch by Miss Charlene’s children.  Isaiah, a high school student, presented Tim and myself with some woodcarvings on which he had been working.  Catherine, his younger sister, gave the two of us hand-made baskets.  And every single participant on the trip received a handmade necklace made from glass and corn beads.  This is an especially meaningful gift given what we have learned about the corn beads.  In the 1830’s, the Cherokee were rounded up from the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains and herded like cattle to the “Indian Territory” of North Carolina. This is called either “the Removal” or “The Trail of Tears”.  The legend says that as they walked, their grief was so profound that as they wept, plants sprung up from their tears.  The seeds of this plant look like tears and their color is that of grief.  Cherokee today wear these “corn beads” in memory of the grief and horror of that time.

Delicious!

 

Isaiah shares his carvings

Catherine and her basket

The steps – finished as far as we could with the materials available.

The porch and roof we were able to construct.

Friday is often what we call the “fun day” on a mission trip.  We try to take some time to learn more about the places we visit and the people who are there.  This year was no exception.  In fact, I’ve been on many trips to and through the Great Smoky Mountains, and I have never heard much mention at all of the Cherokee story.  This year, that changed in a beautiful way.  We started the day at the Ocunaluftee Indian Village, a “living museum” where re-enactors  shared the Cherokee way of life before and since the Removal.  We saw demonstrations of pottery making, weaponry, stonework, and more.  Our group particularly enjoyed the traditional dances, and a few of us even took part in the same.  In fact, the reason that there are no photos here is that your author was among those “whooping it up”!  The group was unanimous in that the time spent at the village was amongst the best things we could do.

At the Village

Levi gave us a demonstration of how a “blow gun” works – accurate at up to 50 feet!

At the dancing ceremony

Following a quick lunch, we stepped it up a little bit in the adventure department and tried our luck tubing the Ocunaluftee River.  Normally, this is a “lazy river” experience, and for much of the time, that’s what we had.  However, with all the rains this area has had recently, the waters were higher and faster than normal, and so a few of the rapids were bumpy and some of us emerged with some new aches, pains, and scars.  I think that at the end of the day, however, most everyone was glad that they’d tried it – whether the took the leap from the rope swing or not.

We ended our evening, and our week, with a devotion on “Wild Love” and the charge that we’ve been given to keep looking for love in the places to which we are sent.  We heard from our graduating senior, Katie, and we prayed over her.  Some of us might have cried…  And it was good.

So now it’s all over but the packing and the long drive home… I’m so impressed with the ways that this group of young people has handled themselves in situations that were challenging to say the least.  I can’t wait to see what God has in store for them in the years to come!

Cherokee Youth Mission Update #1

The New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia is a favorite stop on our way out of Pittsburgh.

The Youth Group from the church/Open Door is spending the week at the Qualla Boundary with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. We are staying at the Cherokee United Methodist Church, and we came in order to encounter aspects of the culture, our faith, ourselves, and our world in order to learn something about being more fully God’s people in this world. To get here, we left Crafton Heights immediately after church on Sunday and drove approximately ten hours south.

These smiles kept us going all day long! 521 miles!

The PLAN was to spend this day laying the groundwork for the construction of a deck and porch for a family in need. However, for the first time in memory, we’ve had a day that is simply a “rain out”. Buckets and buckets of water poured across the Great Smoky Mountains, and we were forced to adapt our plan. We spent the morning wandering through the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which contained a number of informative displays concerning the history and culture of the people who lived here when the Europeans showed up in North America. We learned about pottery, games (like stickball and lacrosse), and handicrafts; we saw something impressive about the empowerment that the Cherokee traditionally accorded to the women in their midst; and we were saddened to read of “the removal”, or the “Trail of Tears”. In fact, the church in which we’re staying is the oldest Native American congregation in the Eastern USA, and it boasted about 440 members in the year prior to the “removal”. Three years later, the church had only 40 members.

I was haunted by this quote in the museum…

We spent the afternoon, in Paige’s words, “pretending it’s a retreat: let’s get to know each other!” You might have enjoyed working a puzzle or playing Apples to Apples; I know I got a kick out of Tim doing his best Jimmy Stewart impression to a group of adolescents who have absolutely no idea who Mr. Stewart is.  When the weather gave us a little bit of a break we took a quick trip to measure out our job site and a brief hike to the beautiful Mingo Falls.

A little “Apples to Apples” on a rainy Monday!

Mingo Falls

 

The Group at the Falls

If the success of the trip is measured in how much wood gets cut or how deep the holes we dig are, well, today was a washout. But if we’re here to encounter and be encountered, well, then – today was a success.   And hey – no splinters!