The winter retreat season is off to a good start. I went to a Spiritual Formation retreat in the middle of last week. Then I spent the weekend at the Senior High Youth Connection. Coming up are the Gilmont Women’s Retreat and two weeks after that will be the Garland Women’s Retreat. I’m such a party animal.
SHYC is always held at Austin College. It’s fairly central to Grace Presbytery who sponsors it. We had over 500 high school kids. It’s huge. We have the standard fare of every retreat: energizers, keynote, small group time, dances and talent. And, of course, a mission project.
Presbyterians always like to have a mission project anytime we get together. If you put two Presbyterians in a phone booth they would probably start scrapping the gum off the wall while they talked and sang songs.
Our mission project this year was a huge undertaking. The kids assembled three kinds of disaster kits for our world-wide agency called Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The 120 clean up buckets will go to disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding. Each five gallon bucket contained a huge box of laundry detergent, 18 cloth towels, dish washing liquid, a scrub brush and a whole bunch of other stuff. Packing it was an art because there were so many things.
There were also 350 hygiene kits (wash cloths, etc) and 225 school kits with pencils and notebooks for children in refugee camps. We had the contents of the three kits lined up at three different areas. The kids revolved around to each area to complete their allotment of kits. The last step was a note inside the container and a prayer for the recipients.
My “title” was Assistant Mission Project Director but I felt fairly useless. Lisa Juica is such an organized person she didn’t really need me. To be honest, up to this point my only contribution had been to eat all the snacks and lunches they provided at the planning meetings. However, I do understand the role of an assistant is to do what I’m told and not ask a lot of questions.
Lisa had deputized a hand-picked group of adult sponsors to work each table where the kids would gather supplies to pack. For example, PDA wanted exactly 24 trash bags in each Clean-Up bucket. Not 23 and not 25. If you packed 25 in a bucket that meant somebody else’s bucket got only 23. If we made this mistake too many times it would have huge ramifications. But the bags were packaged in boxes of 20 at the store. So each group had to grab a box of 20 then tear off EXACTLY 4 more bags. No more and no less. Lisa had bought exactly enough. So the Number Nazis were crucial.
Final count: 120 clean-up buckets, 350 hygiene kits and 225 school kits. It filled a U-Haul trailer to the roof.
My job in all this was far less vital. I stood at the door and made sure the entire group had everybody there. Then I passed out a list of instructions while emphasizing once again the importance of counting the trash bags. Then I waited for Lisa to tell them which table to start at. It was a lot like being a matre’d at restaurant.
But, in addition to being at the door to greet each group coming in, I was also there as each group left. After about 20 of the 30 groups had finished and left I got bored and found myself saying, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” as groups left the gym. Then the Holy Spirit took over as she likes to do whenever I get bored.
Lisa had done a great job of personalizing our mission. She was working in a hospital in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She was witness to a horror that she still can’t fully verbalize even ten years later. Then, when Hurricane Rita hit a few weeks later, she lost power to her home and was a real live recipient of one of the clean-up buckets just like we were packing. She gave the kids a face to their work.
But teenagers have a fragile memory. When they walked into the gym the only thing they saw was a job to do. Ministry comes so naturally to them that sometimes they lose track of why they’re doing it. It wasn’t connecting to them that someone would be thankful for their work.
I caught a group leaving and called out to them to stop. They kept going and I ended up screaming an angry “STOP!” Their leader looked a little frightened like she didn’t know which national security protocol she had breached. Once I got them all together I lined them up and touched the first kid gently on the shoulder and looked directly into her eyes for a moment then said clearly and simply, “Thank You.” I did this to every individual in each group.
Their reaction was so startled that I knew they had never connected their work to anything they needed to be thanked for. So, I ratcheted it up a notch. I wrote down a list of names on a scrap of paper I had in my pocket. It was people I knew had been helped by the PDA efforts after Katrina.
It wasn’t hard to come up with 20 faces and 20 stories. I had to struggle a bit to retrieve some of the names: the couple who would stop work on their house every morning at 10 to make coffee and insist I stop working and join them. Ron….What was his last name? It took me a while to remember Rev Rawls’ wife’s name. I never called her by her first name, only Mrs. Rawls. And who was the other lady next door to Miss Kitty’s house? And dear Miss Susie who sometimes baked a cake for the volunteers or bought ice cream to share.
I remembered helping Jan pack to evacuate from Gus, the hurricane that headed towards New Orleans on the third anniversary of Katrina. How it was the third time she had taken family photos off the wall and drove them to higher ground. Her small “L”-shaped house had broken in two and was carried away but the family pictures were safe.
I remembered Shirley Thompson’s story of how she and her mother slept on the floor of the Stennis Center compound for a week before they would let them go check on what was left of their houses. And how it had been carried a hundred yards from its foundation. And the job that disappeared when the building where she worked was blown away.
These were real people. People with great pride who sometimes lost their house and their job. Katrina took not only your house but the building where you worked, your grocery store, the beauty shop and the post office.
Armed with a list of real people I stopped the next group. I had them form a circle and I got inside. Again, touching each person on the shoulder and pausing a bit I looked into their eyes and said, “Dallas Trammel says thank you.”
Then I went to the next person in the group:
“A.J. Percles thanks you.
Jan Rabe thanks you.
Linda Freeman thanks you.
Miss Kitty Dobie thanks you
When I finished I told them these were real people. These were my friends and I hope this would never happen to them again. But it probably will happen to someone else and it would happen to real people just like my friends and I knew their work Saturday would be a big help.
Each time I did this with a group they would stand for a minute, bathed in the Holy Spirit, letting it sink in. Then they left a little bit wiser. Hopefully, more compassionate. Maybe they will figure out how to prevent natural disasters. They have the imagination for it.
We have no idea where these 120 buckets, 350 hygiene kits, or 225 school kits will end up. It could go anywhere in the world where hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, fires or war disrupts lives like a thief in the night. But, as unique as each of us is to God our Creator, it’s a safe guess that it will be people just like Dallas and Jan and Beverly and Roy. People I would love if I knew them. People you’ve never met but would love, too.
I found a little “ministry” in the midst of feeling useless. A tiny one—a footnote, actually-- or you might call it an afterthought. The Holy Spirit is sneaky that way.