Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reflections on the diocesan mission trip

Photos by mission trip participants can be seen online here.

We stayed at "Almost Heaven," a rather Spartan building located about ten miles outside of Franklin, in northeast West Virginia. It was adequate enough for the 32 of us who stayed there -- a large bunk room for the men and another one for the women. A dining area in between, adjacent to a well equipped kitchen. While the accommodations themselves didn’t call forth heavenly comparisons, the surrounding landscape certainly did. As soon as we walked outside we could fairly hear John Denver's voice extolling the glories of West Virginia. Mountains everywhere, intersected by rivers and streams. Wildflowers along every roadway. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

And rural. 7500 people in a county of 800 square miles. Not to mention poor -- Pendleton County has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country. Habitat for Humanity has operated "Almost Heaven” as a construction base camp for twenty years; and over 100 houses have been put up by the various crews from all over the country that have come in for a week at a time. Mostly college kids and high school youth groups come. I think we were the first group of all adults.

We worked on five houses -- and started a sixth. We had a few ringers -- professional contractors and electricians; but most of us were like me – very eager yet requiring a fair amount of on-site supervision.

As we gathered each evening to reflect on what we saw and learned, it was clear that everyone felt stretched -- either by rural poverty, or by the distance from home (compounded by the fact that there was no cell phone service), or by the stories of the people who worked alongside of some of us on the houses that were destined to be their homes -- or by new skills learned or re-learned. We also felt connected -- by our commitment to mission, our desire to help -- and by our desire for God. Prayer came easily -- as did the building of community among us. The incredible food (provided by our own kitchen crew) helped, as did the bonfire and the closing Eucharist.

While many in our group had worked on Habitat projects in Newark and Paterson, this was my first experience of working directly with this world-wide ministry. When I arrived, I remarked on what I had long regarded as the inefficiency of Habitat for Humanity. That in the face of such urgency for low income housing, the Habitat model is to respond incrementally. One unit at a time. It is a model that won’t fill the overwhelming need. Add to that the work-site inefficiency many of us experienced when the materials needed for the next phase of the project never materialized.

The inefficiency was real. It is real. But then, creation has never been a straight line. It is filled with stops and starts, do-overs and unpredictable trajectories. In spite of all that, we made significant progress on all the work projects. But more than all that, our sojourn at Almost Heaven re-exposed the inequity of the world we live in; and deepened our commitment to do something about it -- which may be the best hedge against inefficiency there is.

Most everyone in the group expressed a desire to return to Almost Heaven. To continue the mission and deepen the commitment. Plans are already in the works to go back next summer -- from July 15 to 21. We welcome pilgrim oriented missioners.