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 #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!

Texas Mission Update 2018 #5

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Those of you who use Facebook are familiar with the “on this day” feature in which the social media platform reminds you of what you posted on that particular date in previous calendar years.  It’s a lot of fun, and recently, I have adopted the practice of looking at those postings as a way of connecting my current self with the experiences that seemed so important to me in the moment.  This week, in particular, there has been great joy in those posts as so many of our previous mission trips to Texas have fallen in this window of time.  It is a deep blessing to look at friends (from CHUP and from the Rio Grande Valley) who have been a part of shaping my experiences of partnership, service, and mission!

Today is the day on which the 2018 version of this trip shifts from “what we’re doing” to “what we did”.  This will be the closing post from this experience, and it always brings measures of both joy and disappointment.

We started yesterday in a bumpy fashion.  I’ve been leading mission trips for 36 years, and for what I believe to be the first time, I began the day by locking the keys inside the building in which we were staying.  Not only did I lock the keys to the church inside the church, but I locked the key to my van in there as well.  “Frustrated”, “irritated”, even “pissed” are too mild to express the feelings that I was directing toward myself at that moment.  We put everyone else into Gabe’s van and I sat and waited for someone from the church to show up and bail me out.  Unfortunately, it was the pastor – and Friday is his day off – and I rousted him from that to stop by the church for a while.  That was not good.

This is what it looks like as you drive away leaving Pastor Dave fuming at having locked the keys in the building…

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was working their butts off on Carrie’s home and on Melvin and Mary’s place.  Each group felt as though they got to a good stopping point.  Our group finished our time at Carrie’s place by completing the lion’s share of the electrical work and hanging nearly all of the drywall.  Not only that, most of the seams had received two coats of mud.  Meanwhile, the group at Melvin and Mary’s home completed the messy job of replacing a number of rotting soffit and fascia boards, power washing the outside of the home, installing trim, and painting most of the outside as well.

setting a window into place

The group at Carrie’s home

The message in the dust from Caelea reads, “Thank You from Caelea” with some hearts…

Buoyed by this, we took a half day and split into two groups for a little local flavor.  As we prepared to depart the church, we were met with two surprises.  Unfortunately, one of the toilets had overflowed in our absence and we were met with a couple of inches of water in the bathroom.  Mike and I got that sorted out, while the rest of the group embraced the welcome arrival of our friend Roland from south Texas.  We first met Roland on the trip in 2009 or 2010, where he was our work site coordinator.  Since then, we’ve developed a friendship that has been transformative and life-giving.  We’ve worked with him every year since then (save 2018) and he’s brought several groups to Pittsburgh as well.  He joined us for lunch and then accompanied the portion of our team that spent the afternoon taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Galveston Island.

Reconnecting with Roland!

Dining in Galveston

Beaching it up!

The remainder of our team chose to visit the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a 45,000 acre parcel of protected wetland that is home to hundreds of species of birds and many other animals as well.  This group braved a very short (3/4 mile) hike through the mosquito infested swamps and then chose to take advantage of the CD-guided audio driving tour through the rest of the facility.

At Brazoria

What could it be?

Oh, I see now!

Here’s mamma!

And one of at least 20 babies!

A flycatcher (too bad she wasn’t interested in mosquitos!)

Every bunny had a great day!

White Tailed Kite

The last of a small herd of wild hogs we encountered.

Everyone had a great time, and then we convened back at the church for our final evening of rest and relaxation prior to our Saturday morning flight.  Before we left the church, we spent a few last moments in the company of the Apostle Paul, reading the familiar words from I Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poorand give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Our challenge for the day – and all the days ahead – is to ‘liberate’ this passage from its confinement to weddings and seek to apply it to the whole of our lives.  We hope and pray that time spent here in Texas will enable us to become more a people of love in every area of our lives.  We appreciate your prayers and your presence on our journey!

Texas Mission Update 2018 #3

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

When we made the arrangements for this mission trip, the good people at The Fuller Center for Housing indicated that most groups like to take Wednesday afternoon off, and many of those groups like to visit the facilities that NASA has here in Houston on those days. We thought that would be a great way to spend the time, and began looking forward to that even as we marched through our first two days on site.

As we completed our work on Tuesday, however, I sensed that there were some conversations between members of our team and local homeowners and volunteers that had really made a deep impact. Tuesday evening, the group decided to forgo the visit to the Space Center in order to work harder on home rehabilitation. There were probably seventeen different reasons for this, but the bottom line is that we’ve been touched by the stories we’ve heard.

Most of our hours have been spent in the home of Carrie and her daughter, Caelea. In fact, with the exception of our incredible tiling team (Lynn and Bonnie), our entire group spent the entire day at this home today. To get a sense of their situation, you might want to see it for yourself.  Click here to see the local news report featuring Carrie and Caelea.

Here are some photos that Carrie shared with us from the time that she was evacuated:

Carrie took this photo of the exterior of her home as she was being evacuated in a boat last August.

The interior of their bathroom during the flood.

Carrie’s driveway the night Harvey was at his worst.

Because we were so deeply touched by her plight and her eagerness to create a new “normal” for herself and her family, it was easy to work through the day. Here are some images of the progress. Look for some of the shots that are similar to the ones Carrie shared with us from the flood situation… and look for hope.

Here’s the home when it’s surrounded by dry(ish) land.

Storm-damaged front windows

New windows!

Jamie has decided that she really likes throwing drywall mud!

Sharing lunch on the site.

“Tim, isn’t that saws-all blade on upside down?”
“Dave, is that how you’re supposed to brace a piece of lumber for sawing?”
And why is the board pink, anyway?
So many questions…

Gabe contines to lead the charge…

Susanna joins the mud brigade!

After our day was complete, we took the time to drive half an hour south to Galveston, where some of our number braved the wind in order to put our toes in the Gulf of Mexico and then all of us enjoyed a meal at the beachfront restaurant called “The Spot”. Another good day!

Crawfish boil? Why, yes, please! I think I shall!

We completed our formal time together with a reading from II Corinthians 5, and discussed Paul’s assertion that the normative task for the Christian is that of reconciliation. Here, it’s easy to see that reconciliation means restoring that which has been damaged as a result of the hurricane and flood. The greater challenge, of course, is to think about how we might be attentive to the ongoing call to be reconcilers in the spheres that we more typically inhabit in Pittsburgh. We welcome your prayers with and for us!

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Texas Mission 2017 #2

Yesterday I was pleased to narrate some of the highlights of our first day in the Rio Grande Valley – a day filled with worship, fellowship, food, and anticipation.  Today, Monday, we were privileged to begin to explore and experience a little of the work to which we’ve been invited this week.  We are working with a network of churches and non-profits in the Valley to assist folks in to safe and adequate housing. This year, as in several previous years, we are tasked with helping the family close the gap between the work that a previous group or groups has done and finally entering the home themselves.

That means a bit of detective work… It’s not unlike turning on an episode of a program with which you’re familiar, but you haven’t seen lately.  And you’re in the middle of the episode… and you know most, but not all of the characters, and you’ve got to make some educated guesses as to who belongs where and why.  In the same way, we come into a home in which someone has made decisions about wiring, plumbing, and carpentry – all decisions, I’m sure, that made perfect sense to those folks at the time… but then they had to leave before they could finish.  And we show up, and we’re not exactly sure which wire leads to which outlet, or why the insulation isn’t in that room, and who knows anything about the way that these door jambs are set?  We know something about how to do all of these things, and we can help… but first we have to figure out where things were left.

Today we had the good fortune of beginning that adventure with a rarity – a cool, rainy day.  On the one hand, that meant a lot of muck and mud.  On the other hand, it made digging ditches for the water and septic lines a whole lot more pleasant than it might have been had it been 95° and sunny (the forecast for later this week!).  So we got a slow start – but a positive one – on the home with which we’re working. And it was good.  And, by God’s grace, so will tomorrow be.

We were delighted to have received a dinner invitation from Jose and Secylia and their family.  We were their guests at an amazing little Mexican restaurant in Edinburg, TX.  The food was delicious and authentic and the company and fellowship were even better.  We’re all the better for having shared that time.  This is an example of a friendship that has developed through the years… We have enjoyed time together now and then, and these folks sought to deepen the partnership through hospitality and generosity.  We are glad to be making and sharing more memories…

I’ll close with a few images of the day…

The water line is laid...

The water line is laid…

... as is the septic line...

… as is the septic line…

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren't stuck long!

The heavy rains overnight turned the mud driveway into a quagmire. One good thing about having 13 people on the trip is that we weren’t stuck long!

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing...

Lindsay and Kati are fitting in a piece of drywall that was inexplicably missing…

...while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs...

…while Tina and Jack work to discover the mysteries of the door jambs…

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

The team works together to raise the decking onto a termite-resistant surface.

Look - it's a bird! One I've never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

Look – it’s a bird! One I’ve never seen before: A White Tailed Kite!

...who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

…who revealed herself to be a black widow spider. We left her be!

 

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady...

An investigation of a small cobweb near a cactus revealed this little lady…

 

 

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Jose and Secylia and a part of our dinner group!

Texas Mission 2016 #1

For the past seven or eight years, The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has sent a team of adults to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.  In partnership with The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch, we have worked to understand issues surrounding migration and poverty as we join hands and hearts in rebuilding houses, worshiping the Lord, and seeking to find where God is on the move.  In 2016, we were sent out with six members from Crafton Heights as well as two friends from other Pittsburgh area churches.

The first day is really all about travel.  We boarded a flight in Pittsburgh at 5:40 a.m. on Saturday, and after a brief stop in Baltimore, found ourselves in Houston  about lunch time.  A six-hour drive later and we were reunited with our hosts in Mission, who had prepared an amazing meal of brisket, sausage, beans, cornbread, and more for us.  More than that, they opened their hearts to welcome and encourage us.  We laughed and talked for a long time, and then almost all of us were ready for bed.  I say “almost all” because my luggage was having such a good time in Baltimore that it decided to hang around there for an extra day – so when the airline called to tell me I was on my own for the night, I went to an all-night drugstore to get a toothbrush, at any rate.

The welcome meal at FPC Mission

The welcome meal at FPC Mission

There were not many leftovers from this crowd!

There were not many leftovers from this crowd!

Preaching at Solomon's Porch

Preaching at Solomon’s Porch, with Pastor Danny on the left.

Sunday morning brought us the opportunity to worship in two places.  We began at 8:30 at FPC Mission, a medium-size church with a population that is peppered with Winter Texans – retirees who spend 3 – 6 month each year in the Valley.  We always enjoy the chance to be in this place and appreciate the beautiful music and warm hospitality of this church.  At 11:30, we met with Solomon’s Porch, temporarily worshiping in Coco’s Restaurant as they await the completion of their new building.  This is a much smaller congregation, but it has a huge vision.  The service was multilingual, and my sermon was preached in English and translated into Spanish (and perhaps corrected, for all I know!) by my friend Pastor Danny.  After worship, we were treated to a meal of homemade tamales, beans, rice, ground meat, and cherry pie.  What a delight to visit these folks, who in addition to receiving us so kindly, have sent three teams to Pittsburgh in recent years.

A portion of the Solomon's Porch congregation

A portion of the Solomon’s Porch congregation

Jon (PA) and Homer (TX) share their stories.

Jon (PA) and Homer (TX) share their stories.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, where a few of us stalked the birds and wildlife while the rest of us walked through the many hiking trails in search of the Rio Grande, a few laughs, and the chance to soak in the 89 degree sunshine!  I was able to add a couple of birds to my life list and everyone was glad to be able to stretch after such a long travel day.  We ended with a delicious spaghetti dinner and a fascinating conversation about God’s grace, guardian angels, and the call to daily obedience.  There was a little personal celebration for me as I had the opportunity to embrace my long-lost luggage!

So now, after two days, we are really here.  We’re acclimated, we’re fed, and we’re ready to dive in.  More about that tomorrow.  Thanks for the prayers, and the privilege to be here!

A Green Jay

A Green Jay

A trio of Chachalacas

A trio of Chachalacas

We were delighted to be found by this little Javelina, a peccary similar to the pig.

We were delighted to be found by this little Javelina, a peccary similar to the pig.

Welcome to Texas, Men!

Welcome to Texas, Men!

We really, really enjoyed both the weather and time together!

We really, really enjoyed both the weather and time together!