I'm back in St. Louis after a week of work and wonder in Philippi and Belington, WV. Our annual mission trip left most all of us exhausted and restored, that distinctive place where grace and grit can take you from time to time if you're lucky enough. We were. We helped refurbish homes and hosted a children's camp, something we've been doing since the trip's inception in July of 1998. What began with a dozen or so folk from Broadview Baptist Church in Temple Hills, MD, has now grown most years to include roughly a hundred volunteers from a half-dozen churches from Maryland, Missouri and Virginia. Things shift every year. The face of our mission community changes: newbies step up for the first time, veterans step back to foster new leadership, pastors come and go. Sometimes the demands of schedules, jobs, schooling, or the severe limits of health and age get in the way of our desire to return. One summer I was mugged by a wheel barrow and missed out; another time a close, close friend and mentor had two knees replaced but made it anyway. Somewhere I'm pretty sure there's a picture from that summer of him standing on a rooftop, helping lay shingles. But every year God somehow manages to gather us into one unique flame of Christ's fiery love.
For 17 years now our annual journey has been in flux, twisting and turning with our availability and the varying ministry demands on the ground. However, certain invariables nestled within the mayhem always find their way to us. For example, alongside the Great Constancy of God's Love, we have been blessed with two other constants. One's a place; the other a person: we always end up in the same neck of the woods, the Belington and Philippi vicinity of Barbour County, WV; and Brother Leon is always there to greet and spur us on.
Aren't there, you might ask, other places of equally great need? At least one or two. Must we drive for hours beyond our own backyard to find places of great need? Not at all, but we do. Every year. Aren't there other people that welcome you once you arrive besides Leon? Sure. Lots of them. And we could not manage without them. The whole world's in need, and some 17,000 of them live in Barbour County. All of them deserve to be mentioned by name, but who'd stand for that? Heck, there are about 1900 souls in Belington alone! But even that's not particular enough. As poet Wendell Berry puts it, "There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity." Big words from a poet who has such a robust faith in the small, the local, the particular. So we live our lives as best we can where we live 51 weeks a year, and then, God willing, once a year we take a small piece of "where we live and who we live there with" to Barbour County where Belington and Philippi and Leon await us with welcome.
We do this because of their great need--and ours. We need the props pulled out from under us, need the startling beauty of the West Virginia hills, need the long drive to visit and think, need
the makeshift mission community we've come to know over the years as our "reunion," need to work together, pull together, paint gazebos, reconnoiter firewood, pour concrete, teach the bible, do
concerts, dig holes, nail decks, prepare meals, roof houses, fill potholes, do weird science, shoot videos, build swing sets, eat raspberry ice cream at Dairy King together until all hours of the
night. We need the hospitality of people who have the strength and humility to say the three magic words, "Please help me"--and then entrust their very homes and children to our safekeeping. (How
long has it been since you've done anything so simple and courageous?) We need to know the refreshing quality of being exhausted by someone or something that's not "ours," of spending our money,
time and energy on the needs of someone or something else for a change. We need to get so close in such a short period of time that we get on each others' nerves and step on each others' toes.
Why? Because it says we love each other enough to be vulnerable and tired and tied together, which always leads to the gifts of being honest and raw. And to humor, too, for we need to laugh
ourselves silly together. These are the needs of a community, not of privatized, suburban isolation and its posture of self-sufficiency. These are the needs of a people of all ages drawn from
three states by God to circle up with compassionate intent in a particular place with a particular people. Our needs. Our calling. We have found the place Frederick Buechner names so well:
"The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
So on our last evening together we gathered in a circle, around a fire, in the woods. We spoke of the Celtic notion of "thin places," how certain places seem so "thick" with God, that Belington and Philippi had become such places for us. We swapped stories about how we'd experienced God. We also savored Wendell Berry's idea that there are no unsacred places. Only sacred places and desecrated places. We thought together about how the same is true for people: all people are sacred, but some desecrate their lives, or have been desecrated by life. If spirituality is what we do with the fire of our desire, then each person must come to grips with his or her deepest longing for God. It's this fire, this holy passion for God and compassion for others, that warms and vitalizes us. Misplaced, ignored or misdirected, this longing can destroy us. Finally, we were invited to partake of the Holy Fire of God's presence through the sharing of the Bread and the Cup. Just as the sun's fire is in the grain and the grape, so is God's Presence burning within each of our hearts.
Oh, and then we made S'mores as a celebratory benediction.
On the last day, I said goodbye to Leon. Over the years, as he's watched over us, we've watched him. He's begun to slip a little. In the beginning, he worked on the local train, and visited with us when he was off. Then he began to follow us around on his bike. This year, unable to walk, he was sporting a little scooter. As I took the photo above, he asked me if I would send him a picture of my church. He was a little confused about his address at the time, so I promised I'd bring him a picture next year. He paused and thought about that. Then said, "I don't know if I'll still be here." Then he smiled and gave me two big "thumbs up."
We don't know, either, Leon. But, God willing, we intend to be back, following the One who once said, "I've come to bring fire to the earth. Oh, how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49)