2019 Texas Mission #5

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

There’s a couple of hundred yards of Crooked Creek shoreline in Erie County, PA.

There are my two black chairs right next to my fish tank.

There’s a spot on the road between Liwonde and Ntaja, Malawi.

There’s a room in the cardiac care wing of Presbyterian University Hospital.

I don’t know where they are for you, but I’m betting you’ve got one or two or more… spots from which you have glimpsed the Holy – places to which you have returned more than once because you have found that those are spots where you simply know that God abides, and because you have sensed it there, you think, it’s reasonable to assume that the Presence might be anywhere.  You have places where you have found belief that remind you that you can continue to carry belief even when it seems nonsensical, or wearisome, or simply too heavy.

Most people think that those spots are functional – fishing holes or furniture or paved road or a health care center –  but to me, it’s a place where I’ve fished and heard the voice of God, or the location of some of the most deeply personal and intimate conversations with which a pastor has been entrusted, or the place where I remember the beauty and wonder of the God with humor enough to create Baobab trees, or a spot where I’ve witnessed faith and family and healing that strengthens my soul.

Thursday evening I was privileged to be in one of those spots – a place to which we’ve returned several times over the past few years.  It’s a lovely tree next to a little purple home outside of Mission, Texas.  It’s a tree that has provided me with shade on some really hot days, conversation and friendship on many days, and incredible glimpses of the kingdom on a few occasions.

In 2015 our team worked on a home that afforded us the opportunity to strike up a wonderful relationship with the family who lived there. In the years since then, every single time we’ve visited the Rio Grande Valley – every single time – we have been invited over for conversation and a meal.  Tonight, we visited that family again, and saw more chicken and sausage than anyone knew what to do with.  There was a bigger pot of beans than anyone from Pittsburgh had ever seen before.

We sat by the fire, we sat under the tree, and some of us who were there for the first time engaged in conversation with gracious people.  Others, who’d been there before, took the opportunity to hear and learn and share things that one does with friends in holy places like this.

I heard from one of the young adults in the home that when we were first there, they didn’t know what to make of us.  We sure laughed a lot, and we spilled a lot of paint.  But I was told of how it felt to go from having five people sleeping and living in a single room with a single bed to having a real house, where when it rains or storms, you are safe; of how it feels to be able to go to school and know you have an address; of what it means to be able to think about a future in service to others.

And I was reminded of those holy places in my life, and I thanked God for glimpses into the eternal.

All of the above was just AFTER dinner.  Before dinner, we did a lot of stuff that you’d expect from us this week: painting, roofing, drywalling, laughing, and spilling paint.  Here are a few images of our Thursday, as selected by our team’s primary photographer, Josie.  We appreciate your prayers.

Karren continues to conquer her discomfort with being on the roof by teaching that shingle who’s the boss…

Jon and Lindsay are taking care of the other side of the home…

Our hallway transitions from lime green to sunshine yellow…

Kayla, you really shouldn’t be having this much fun painting the house…

Jessica? Where’s Jessica? The last time I saw her, she went into the dining room with a paintbrush…

Every day we are here, the people of Mission Presbyterian Church offer us a hot lunch. Today, we were blessed to have homemade noodles from our friend Carol. She and her late husband Rog have been stalwart supporters of this mission.

Sacred conversation around the Lord’s table…

And here is the tree that reminds me that God is faithful, even when I doubt. I hope you can sit here one day.

 

2019 Texas Mission Trip #4

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

Today was a great day to be on site as we continued our trip in the Rio Grande Valley.  The sun made an amazing appearance, and we had a lot of pink shoulders and faces around the discussion table this evening. The team that worked up on the roof (which, frankly, was most of our number) made some fantastic progress on the roof.  Meanwhile, a few of us remained inside – which felt increasingly like a cave as the sun shone more brightly. We were able to finish piecing in the drywall that we’d cut out due to flood damage and most of it has a second coat of mud on it already.

Following our work day, we were able to spend some time with Daniel Behrens, a Deacon in service to the Anglican Church through a mission called Trinity On The Border.  It was Daniel who gave us the idea to pack the hygiene kits for the Respite Center.  Daniel was eager to see some fellow Yinzers (he grew up in the South Hills) and to share his perspective on the nature and needs of the communities here.  We had a great discussion on the value and purpose of short-term trips like this (I might have said something like, “Seriously! Why should we spend all this money bringing us down here when we could send the money to someone local, who could hire roofers who probably need the work, and who would do it better than we would… because, frankly, we’re not very good roofers?”).  It was a rich time of conversation about the fact that the little house on Rhode Island Drive is not the only that’s getting worked on this week… We are all being shaped.

It’s late – so here are a few photos that will give you a glimpse of our day…

What IS that burning orange ball in the sky?

Jahn and David putting on the shingles…

Brian prepares our next piece of sheetrock…

The roof isn’t THAT pitched, but Josie is creative…

Phillippe, the homeowner, gives me some advice on cleaning the drywall equipment.

Daniel leads the conversation pertaining to Trinity on the Border

2019 Texas Mission #3

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

If you pray, how do you think that God answers prayer?

When do you know that it happens?

Have you ever been around to see it?

Today, we did a lot of work.  More about that in a moment.  I’d like to tell you about the fifteen most significant moments of my day.  If you saw Sunday’s entry to this sequence of updates, you know that in addition to coming to the Rio Grande Valley to do some housing rehabilitation, we came to seek to learn about the experiences of those who are here and those who arrive here each day.  To help us in this we prepared, and asked a lot of friends to prepare, “Respite Kits” for distribution to those who have entered the USA here in Texas and are seeking asylum or permanent residency.  Since we’ve arrived, we’ve been calling folks at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.  They didn’t return our calls, and someone suggested that we should just stop by and drop off the kits.

We arrived at the building and saw long lines snaking out in so many different directions. We took our donations to the side door where we were greeted by a volunteer who said, “Seriously? You have respite kits?  We ran out earlier today.  I didn’t know what we would do, but I told my wife, ‘God will get us some.’  And look, here you are!”  We discovered that the reason that they had not been answering their phones was because in the past 3 days this center has received more than 1500 individuals – mostly women with children.  They are at the center for a day at the most, hoping for a hot meal, a quick shower, a new set of clothes (including shoe laces which are taken from each individual at the detention centers), and a bus ticket to the home of a relative or friend while they await the hearings that will determine their eligibility to stay in the USA.

For me, the emotion was so palpable that I * might * have burst into tears whilst talking to a young mother whose children helped to pack similar bags several states away.  There is so much brokenness, so much that is wounded and wrong in our world. And here we are, with our baggies full of toothpaste and soap.  Talk about “the least of these.”  Sheesh.  I mentioned to someone earlier today that one of my favorite characters is Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I felt as though I were charging at windmills for much of the day.

And we worked – a lot – on the house as well.  And we had an amazing dinner with some good friends from the Valley.  And we enjoyed another hot lunch courtesy of our hosts.  We are overwhelmed with blessings.  I’d say more, but it’s nearly midnight and I’ll be up six hours from now ready to start it all again.  So here are a few photos.

Our Respite Bags having been transferred to the incredibly temporary storage bin at Catholic Charities.

Meeting with Scott, the volunteer at the Respite Center who prayed for supplies and then we showed up…

I’d say Gabe’s back is looking pretty great, thanks be to God!

Beginning the process of laying the new roof (yes, we can see it is raining…)

Bob Walters is an amazing person. That is all.

Just a couple of Daves, doing drywall. Nothing to see here…

Josie takes charge with the drywall gun!

Jessica hanging drywall with patience and precision.

Tina learning to tape drywall.

Amazing dinner with long-time friends in a wonder-filled atmosphere. We are indeed blessed.

2019 Texas Mission #2

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

The first day of a construction/service trip is often slow to get going, as we’ve got to get the lay of the land in terms of the tasks that are in front of us, the tools at our disposal, the personnel we have on hand, and the constraints or opportunities any of those afford to us.  Today it felt as though we launched with lightning speed!

We’ve been invited to help a homeowner recover from some pretty intense flooding that hit this area last year.  This part of Texas is flat – I mean, FLAT. And we are essentially at sea level, even though we are so far inland.  That means that when an area gets hit by a hard, heavy rain, it can take some time for the water to get anywhere. As a result, homes that are built on a slab are at risk of flooding.  Such was the case in the property we went to today.

The remedy for this kind of flooding is to remove the bottom two feet or so of drywall so as to reduce the likelihood of mold or mildew setting in and causing long-term damage to either the home or its inhabitants.  Some of our group spent much of the day measuring and cutting through drywall and trim in order to accomplish this.  The rest of the team was sent up top, to remove the shingles from the roof as we anticipate replacing it later in the week.

It was a great first day of labor, and a better first day of coming together as a team and a community.  There was a lot of laughter and encouragement; some of us (I’m looking at you, Karen!) faced our fears and scaled new heights – literally – in order to work on the roof.  All of us enjoyed a delicious lunch of “Grandma’s sloppy joe” and, my personal favorite, GRAPEFRUIT PIE!  We first had this southern delicacy years ago, and my friend Martha made TWO of these treats for the group, along with a couple of blackberry pies.  If I was on my game, you’d see a picture of us, and these pies, and there would be lots of smiling involved… but the truth is that I was so engaged with visiting, listening to stories, and, well, eating that I didn’t get any.  I’m sorry about that, because those are shots I’d like to have some day, and maybe you’d like to see them.

We are eager to get back out there tomorrow and discover what is waiting for us on site and in our lives.  Until then, we are deeply grateful for the chances we’ve been given to be here and to be together.  Here are a few images from our day…

Starting the day in conversation and prayer with our team and members of the community here who have rallied to support us.

Kayla and Jessica preparing to remove the trim on the lower part of the walls.

Lindsay making sure that the lines are straight and the surface is prepared for the new drywall.

Karen wasn’t sure she could get up on the roof – but once she got there, she was unstoppable!!! (Oh, yeah, Jon, Bob, Tim, and the rest of the crew were there too!).

Clearing the old shingles off the roof was tedious work, and we were glad for the cool (64°) temps.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that the roof was in fundamentally good shape. We didn’t have to replace any of the wood, which was good for everyone!

There was a slight “wardrobe malfunction” as Kayla’s boot – practically new! – blew out. Fortunately, there’s duct tape for that…

2019 Texas Mission #1

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  In 2019 we have returned to the scene of most of those trips, the small city of Mission, Texas.  Here, as we enjoy the hospitality of our partners at the First Presbyterian Church of Mission, we’ll join forces with other mission networks to work to rehab a home that has been damaged by recent flooding.

We were commissioned in worship on February 10 and left Pittsburgh on the 16.  We flew to Harlingen and drove the final 45 minutes to Mission, arriving after midnight on the 17th.  Today was a day to get acclimated in several ways.  We joined our friends in worship, and then we visited the small chapel called La Lomita.  This historic site offers us a chance to think about the Christian virtues of hospitality, welcome, and faithfulness in the small things that shape us in large ways.

Lunch was a sumptuous affair at a local Mexican restaurant and then the team divided.  Bob, Lindsay, and Jahn went to the grocery store to equip us for our first few meals at the church, while the rest of the team visited the Bentson-Rio Grande Valley State Park located just a few miles away.  This is a sprawling area of trails and scrub that offered us the chance to soak up some warmth, to stretch our legs, and to see a few birds.

The visits to La Lomita and the State Park were bittersweet in that both of these areas are destined to be closed to the public as a result of construction of the proposed border wall that is currently a matter of no small debate. It was difficult to be in these places and to think of the fact that in years to come such will be inaccessible for political reasons.

Our dinner back at the church was fantastic, and we ended the evening with a rousing game of “Codenames”.

We appreciate your prayers!  Check back tomorrow for a glimpse at what we shall encounter next!

Amongst all the luggage we brought were three large cases of “respite kits” to be distributed to those seeking asylum in the USA. These small hygiene kits were assembled by dozens of volunteers in Pittsburgh and will be distributed with love.

The Chapel of La Lomita

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

A Crested Caracara keeps a watchful eye on our group.

Walking through Bentson-Rio Grande Valley

If you don’t know this game, you should! Codenames!

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.