I was never a mission trip kind of kid growing up. I was part of a youth group and we did our fair share of mission experiences, but at the end of the day it was hard to convince my cynical, Gen X, teenage mind that my peers and I weren’t just painting the same wall that another group had painted the week before. There was a sense of disconnect between the spiritual work of mission, and all of the loaded stuff that comes with those words, and the physical act of swinging hammers and sawing wood.
Thirty years later, with the benefit of being on the organizing end of youth mission work, I’m closer to a better understanding of what the role of this work means in the lives of our young people and the communities they serve. Over 100 years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia built a mission retreat dedicated to serving those in need in the Appalachian mountains. That mission center eventually became Grace House on the Mountain, a facility that hosts groups of youth and adults from around the country, pairing them up with work projects for local needy families (typically coal mining folks). And it definitely ain’t painting walls. It’s rehabbing houses and trailers that are falling apart, providing wheelchair ramps and decks for those who have recently suffered mobility impairment, patching roofs, and replacing flooring and insulation. They also provide bill assistance for those who are facing utility stoppage due to lack of payment. In short, Grace House does the spiritual, baptismal work of recognizing the dignity of every human being by doing the physical, substantive work of providing decent shelter for those who can’t afford to maintain their homes.
I am proud to say that our Bethesda high school youth have been able to work with this community twice now, most recently two weeks ago when our group traveled to St. Paul, VA to replace a ramp and deck for a woman who had recently been wheelchair-bound. It was a tremendous week of laughs, love, and labor. It was everything you hope one of these week-long trips will be when your job is to organize these things for a living. But, above all, it was a week that cracked open the cynical, Gen X heart of this youth leader and revealed that there is something transformative about the mission experience, especially when it is embraced with a spirit of good will. God’s grace to us is a mystery, one that we can spend a lifetime trying to futilely understand. The best mirror that we have in this world to that great love is our mercy that we show to each other. I was able to bear witness to that love of God through love of neighbor in the actions of our young people this month and it was beautiful. It made me want to be a better Christian. And it reminded me, that sometimes the mission fields aren’t in the hills of Virginia, but in the corners of our hearts where even those who weren’t mission trip kind of kids growing up can find salvation.
Associate for Christian Formation