The spiritual experiences of these trips vary widely for me, depending on how receptive the teens are, what types of spiritual experiences there are, and how insanely exhausted i am from keeping up with teens who seem to have limitless energy and enthusiasm (the answer: i am ALWAYS insanely exhausted by them). Generally, the focus of these service trips is leading teens to Christ, something I really treasure. But, no offense to them, I'm not the target audience, so I usually just sit back, observe and support, remembering what it was like to be a teen questioning the faith.
But last week, in Greensboro, North Carolina, my experience was completely different. First off, unlike every other service trip I've done, my work that week would not be painting or plastering or mixing cement by hand. My job would be to be present to people with developmental disabilities or deteriorating mental conditions. Everyday our little group got up, headed out, and had exactly the same conversation over and over. Or we spent an hour and half doing puzzles. Which was actually amazing. And sad. And a challenge as a chaperone, to make sure everyone was engaged and focused outward. The meeting of teenagers, who have their whole lives in front of them and who may not have learned they're not invincible, and the elderly, infirm, and fragile, whose lives have encompassed so much vulnerability and pain and joy and who have lived sometimes 4 or 5 times as long as these teens - man, that was rough terrain for us all to navigate.
Thankfully, another thing that was different this year was the priest for Catholic Heart Workcamp. During our first of 5 daily masses, Fr. Jeff let us know that he was going to give us 5 universal truths that, if we would listen and really hear them would set us free. And, I mean, c'mon - we're Catholics. We love lists! So I got all psyched, thinking they'd be wisdom culled from the ages that i could spend my free time reflecting on and, like little Buddha under the lotus tree, reach my own kind of Catholic enlightment.
Umm, no. That's not what happened. This list, which you'll find below, is, without any context, a seriously depressing list. But with context, and with God's grace, it's the best, hardest news I've received in a long time. I hope Fr. Jeff doesn't mind me stealing his idea (which I think he stole from Richard Rohr, so hopefully, we're even), but it was too good not to commit to paper (or to electronic media in this case).
After we received each truth, and then went out to do service, I began to see exactly how these truths manifest themselves, and started wanting to find them, just so I could work on my reactions and pray for guidance in them. Also, these truths offered a helpful, spiritual lens on service. These five truths, Fr. Jeff pointed out, are already known to the downtrodden, the broken, and the fragile in our society. So we can turn to them for guidance on how to accept these truths and move towards grace, which is part of what makes the poor so much better than the rich, and the weak so much better than the strong...
Five Spiritual Truths
- Life is Hard - now, we all say we know this. But, if you reflect on how our society is set up, you realize how much the message really is "Life is hard because..." Because you don't own a good car. Because you're not rich enough. Because you're ugly or stupid or lazy, or, worse yet, because other people are stupid or lazy or taking advantage of you and you deserve better. But, there really is no "because". Life is hard. Period. That's the human experience. Sometimes it's our fault it's hard, sometimes it's outside us. But there's nobody out there whose life is bumpless and serene. If we accepted this (and I look mostly at myself when I say this), it would revolutionize service. Because, I don't have to fix you. Your life is hard. My life is hard. What I can do is walk with you, listen to why your life is hard and tell you a little about my life. And if I have something you need, and I offer it, and it temporarily makes life less hard, awesome! If not, we've connected in our broken, hard, lives and that's always valuable.
- You Are Not Important - okay, now here's where the wheels started coming off the wagon for Fr. Jeff in the beginning. Because absolutely nobody wants to hear this. Thankfully, almost right away he clarified it. We're all infinitely valuable. We're just not important. Because, in true philosophical logic, if something is important, it always holds that something else must be unimportant. So, by trying to make ourselves important, we necessarily have to denigrate someone else, or promote ourselves above them, or make them feel they've just missed the mark. Much as I loved all the teens there, it's really easy to see how the issue of being important plays out in interactions between cliques of friends. And it's easy to see how it plays out for me, which is the most embarrassing part. See, the teens from our church see their youth minister every Sunday (and then some). They see my dad every Sunday, and many have known him (and my momma) since they were small. But, they only know me (mainly) through my sister, since I chose, about 5 years ago, to get my spiritual needs filled elsewhere. Which I don't regret, but does lead to little Gollum moments when I realize that I may be the least important chaperone. I mean, the teens were all incredibly nice, including me in their reindeer games, and all that. But in terms of really connecting, it was much harder than it seemed for Monica or my pops. Which caused me to note my reaction and what I saw was kinda horrifying - I'd made it about me, not about helping the teens. Ostensibly the point is that the teens find Christ through service. But I found that I really wanted, in some way, for the teens to find Christ through my service - to them and to the community. I wanted to be important. Thankfully, once I named that, I was able to struggle with it. And once I was able to struggle with it, painfully and never truly successfully, I was able to pray my way out of it a little. And I was able to realize that, on our own, we're all valuable without trying to promote ourselves or to cut others down...
- Your Life Is Not About You - Fr. Jeff took pains to explain this point clearly, since there was so much confusion about the earlier point. He said that one of the dangers of raising children these days is that parents give up everything for their children, which leads to children who think they are the center of everything. But, in fact, we all have to live on this increasingly crowded planet together, and it does nothing good for us, or those around us, if we pretend that we're the only ones who exist or have needs or are "important." Selflessness is necessary for us all to get along in the world. For example, every day at the elder day center, at exactly 11 o' clock, the whole group of us walked from the room where we hung out down to the lobby to sing songs and wait for lunch. And, as I observed this ritual which every person there had done at least 200 times in a given year, I noticed how two of the folks with the most profound impediments, who could not communicate at all, always took pains to grab the wheelchair of the person next to them and wheel them down. Watching fragile people confidently and kindly taking care of other fragile people is almost too much to think about, even now. We don't often see fragility being celebrated in our media consumption or advertising culture, so to be confronted by a person who can't speak caring for one who can't walk - well, it makes the phrase "The blind leading the blind" seem less nonsensical and more tender. Because the folks at the elder center took care of each other in a matter-of-fact, common place way, because they seemed to get it - their time there wasn't about them. Other people were worse off, and it fell to them to take care of others, and they did it with a joy and kindness that often eludes those of us who take care to hide our fragilities.
- You're Not In Control - This point was aptly illustrated during the week because we almost never had a day where one of our buses didn't break down on the way back from picking up teens. Teens who were working far away from the camp site and, more importantly, far away from a refreshing shower. These kids would usually also miss dinner and part of the program, and many of them were doing hard manual labor and were so anxious to get back. It was such a bummer, but also an unfortunately clear example of Fr. Jeff's 4th point. What would complaining have gotten those kids? Not closer to home. Not on a bus that was fixed. They just had to wait, since they clearly weren't in control. And, amazingly, most of them remained in good spirits and found ways to pass the time. In fact, one day, a priest from one of the youth groups took the time while they were waiting to hear confession, right there in the horse park. That's a pretty amazing example of what happens when we surrender our need to be in control and make the best out of the situation we're in.
- You're Going To Die - This one I had a little sneak preview of, but was a good reminder anyways. You will die. People you love will die. But, think of all the ways we try to outrun it, or amass power and prestige as some sort of way to ward it off. It took my mom dying for me to realize, truly, that I only get this one life but I spent so much time being afraid. When I looked at the folks we worked with during our week in North Carolina, it seemed most of them had suffered some sort of deep loss. Some had lost spouses or children. Some had their very livelihoods taken by strokes or early-onset dementia. And, not to be prosaic, but I think anyone who's experienced that kind of loss knows a little more about mortality than the rest of us. And even some our teens knew that type of loss and tended, as a consequence, to be fearless and tough and hurt. But even those teens who have never experienced loss will, eventually. We all know nobody escapes it, and no one can fend it away from anyone else, much as we'd like to. So, the best bet is to do what seems least helpful - to live through it well. The folks at the elder center often could not remember that we'd come. But they remembered most of the Baptist Hymnal. One man whom we saw everyday, was legally blind and deaf. He didn't seem to make a lot of sense when he talked but the two things that made him come alive were Jesus Christ and checkers. Checkers with him was ruthless - he was sort of a cheat and definitely a smack talker. Given all that we'd seen of him, none of us were prepared for him to say grace. He recited all of Psalm 23 and led us in every verse of Amazing Grace pretty much everyday. He knew loads of other songs, too, and all of them were about Jesus. Specifically, they were about the promise of resurrection and about life eternal, even for wretches like us. So, the old rugged cross and it's amazing grace somehow cut through the fog of confusion which settled on him most of the time. Maybe it was through rote memorization, but I think it's more likely that it was because those songs and psalms hold a promise that is especially sweet to those folks who have already accepted the truth of their own mortality.
It's been over a week since we got back and I still find myself reflecting on these truths. It's definitely the best gift I've received from any mission trip I've been on. Knowing that I will be leaving my spiritual support system so soon, I've wondered how I'll stay connected without my mission trip experiences, or my spiritual community, or seeing my dad and sister sing in the Lifeteen band. But I've been able to find deep spirituality in North Carolina, so chances are, with Chrissy along for the ride and five new spiritual truths in my mind, I think it's gonna go pretty well...