For one week this past summer 14 high school students and 5 adults traveled to Prestonsburg, Kentucky for a mission trip led by the Director of Religious Education, Kimberly Luck. Working through LINKS (Low Income Housing Coalition for Eastern Kentucky), the group contributed on many projects including finishing a new porch, painting a house and putting up siding in one of the areas with the highest rate of poverty in the country. Most of all, they deepened their bonds with each other and built friendships with the people in the community. On Sunday the 27th, three of the youth shared a few of their memories with the congregation. Below are their reflections:
During the week that we were down in Kentucky, all of our lives were transformed in many ways. On our first work day, we split into two groups and set off to our first work sites, not knowing what to expect. After following one of the leaders, Rita down the winding roads of Weeksbury and Wheelwright Kentucky, we finally arrived at a small white house with a partially finished porch. Rita explained that we had to put up support beams on the porch, build a railing and build a new staircase. At that point everyone was feeling pretty confident. After an awkward couple seconds of silence, Rita said, “Well I ain’t no carpenter!” Right then was the biggest moment of panic we had the whole trip. Little did we know, there was no trained carpenter there and we had no plan! Sam knew some basic carpentry skills and sent us away to journal while he gathered his thoughts and came up with a plan. After several minutes of planning, he explained what we were going to do and assigned jobs to everyone. For the first day, everyone seemed to be working by themselves, but by the end of the week we were a well oiled machine. It was amazing to see what we could do when we turned to those around us for guidance and support.
A second example of our transformation was the moment we walked in the door to the place that we would eventually call home. Needless to say, it did not look, feel or smell like any place someone could ever call home. We walked into an old abandoned gym straight out of the 1950s. There were old trophies in a trophy case, a big open room, and a kitchen to the left. We had been warned that the cots probably wouldn’t be usable, and when we saw them, we understood what they meant. Covered in mold, and sprayed with fire resistant spray, these cots were barely cots anymore. Instead of sleeping on them, we later decided they were better for hiding behind in Hide and Seek. After seeing these so called cots, we all piled into the main room, and set up camp on a filthy linoleum floor with our camping pads and pool air mattresses. A few people set to work cleaning the kitchen, a must do activity before anything was cooked in it. The amount of grease that had built up in the deep fryer was unimaginable. The kitchen crew agreed that nothing should be put in the refrigerators until they had also been cleaned. Every utensil, and every pot and pan was thoroughly sanitized before use. Within half an hour, part of our group had been transformed from skeptical and worried, to a motivated work force, determined to make the best of the place we were given. Another part went to the local store for whatever their shelves contained for food. Another concern was the overwhelming smell that encompassed the entire building. The smell was a mixture of mold, old food and any other unpleasant smell you could think of. A few people, including myself could barely keep from gagging every time this air was inhaled. While cleaning, some of us would sneak outside to get some fresh air. Sarah took it a step further by declaring she would be sleeping in her rental car for the remainder of the week. Surprisingly the smell went almost unnoticed by the time we left .
As unappealing as this place sounds, everyone was calling it home by the end of the week, and looked forward to returning to it at the end of each day. Strangely enough, when I returned to Lincoln I actually missed living in that old gym, and I was overwhelmed by having a whole house to live in for a mere four people. Going down to Kentucky for a week was quite the experience, and between the people we met, the skills we learned, and the amazing cooperation by everyone, it was a trip I’ll never forget.
One of the biggest gifts we received while on our trip to Kentucky was getting to know all the people there. Joanne, the woman we built the porch for, invited us to her family cook-out. And Geraldine, her sister-in-law next door, was so kind to us as we painted her house, sharing stories about her life. While we were all painting Geraldine’s house, a cute little girl stopped by on her pink bike: this was our first introduction to Lauren.
We soon found out that we had misjudged Lauren, for she was not an “innocent little girl”. She acted twice her age and was not afraid to yell at us for playing with paint and blowing balloons out of gloves. Julia Levy was the first to hear her stern tone when Lauren caught her painting her legs with flowers. For the next few days Lauren would check up on us to make sure we were all doing our jobs to the best of our abilities. When she was not busy making sure we were staying on task we would talk about the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana. She was so excited to see them in concert in Louisville. After a few days of playing games and racing on bikes we realized that underneath her tough ruggedness was a precocious nine year old. Along with our conversations about the Jonas Brothers and whole Disney Channel cast, we talked about school and what she wanted to be when she grew up. She replied without batting an eye that she wanted to be a lawyer. Her reasoning was that by becoming a lawyer she could live in a nice home with her family. She wanted her way of living to change but not her values.
Everything Lauren talked about included the well being of her family. It was refreshing to see a young girl satisfied with what she had and not preoccupied with what the latest gadget was or what she could not have. It was a stark contrast to talk with Lauren about her dreams while painting the house of Geraldine who had lived in the same town her entire life, and had only moved a few 100 feet from the house she grew up in. It was sad saying goodbye to Lauren. Her smile and distinct personality is something we will never forget.
-Jessica Nichols and Katherine LoChiatto
I left the tarmac at Logan airport with high expectations for myself. I wanted to serve, first and foremost, and felt confident in my capacity to do that. Secondly, I wanted to learn from the people and the environment. I found that there was ample opportunity for both. In addition, I had a self-serving motive. I wanted a new experience against which I could compare my comfortable reality. Because this was an intention of mine, I was fully aware of the dichotemy between my own world-view and that the people with whom we interacted. I was looking for difference, I suppose, and we find that which we seek.
I became hyper aware, as might a photographer or an anthropologist, of contrast – confederate flags, baptist churches, conservative politics. A construct established itself in my mind. It is not that I had trouble relating to the people around me – they quickly became friends, family even, the strangers among them no more foreign than those at home. But their general culture was alien to me. I pushed against it, I felt the need to defend myself from the questions that arose – my own questions – about my perception of truth. How secure could I be in my fundamental beliefs, when certainly they were no more valid than those of my new friends?
Joanne, mouth tight around a wagging cigarette on our second day of tearing down and building up, spoke to me about God. “God” she said, “likes to be talked to. You gotta tell him what’s bothering you, and he’ll look out for you. He’ll listen. Sometimes right away, sometimes not on this earth, and sometimes in ways that’ll make you wonder. Take me, for example,” she said. “I was full of hardness and hate toward the whole world, until I gave it up to God.” I nodded, smiled, envied her faith. And that night, because I too believe in “giving it up to God,” I prayed for some kind of bridge between my world and Joanne’s.
It was the next day, after a morning of painting Geraldine’s house, that we were invited to the home of Janet and Ned Stumbo-Pillersdorf for a barbecue. He is a lawyer, and she is the first woman to have been elected to the Kentucky Supreme Court without previous appointment. The first thing we noticed were the Obama posters in the front yard, the second was Janet’s soft accent and the pictures, everywhere, of her three girls. While the rest of us took a welcome splash in the pool behind the house, I considered all the questions I had. I wanted to know everything – statistics, mostly, quantitative stuff about the roots of poverty and the voting demographics. My emotions were high, and I wanted something tangible to which I could cling. Over hamburgers, I grilled her about the region. She explained that voter turnout is high on a local level, that people have immense concern for their immediate community. She articulated the hopelessness that arises from seeing wealth around you and being unable to accrue it, the hopelessness of being the “failure” of the American dream. She had an answer to each of my questions.
We talked about art, about my writing, about where her daughters went to college. Later, her father came over from his house down the road. He told us about Vietnam, his first trip overseas, where 80-something of his cousins fought and came home. Most of them, he said, died in Korea. He told us about that, too, and more – about his boyhood and his pride in Janet. I felt so comfortable with this family who flipped burgers and talked about social injustice. After a week of hard work, I needed time to process. I needed to see with my intellect what I’d seen with my hands and my heart.
At the end of our discussion, I had one more question, which I regretted as soon as it left my mouth. “Why did you come back?” Why would this woman, with her liberal politics and her eccentric, intellectual family, come back to a place where she was the odd man out? “I never left,” she said. “Not really. This is my home, these are my family and friends. I was raised here, Daddy’s here, everyone is here. This is it.” It seemed simple, in Janet’s mind. You return home. You bring your skills home. You serve. With a focus on worker’s compensation, black lung claims – heavy, dirty, real things, Janet is a visionary, a hero of mine for sure. I asked her later, while we were talking about the flaws of a recent documentary, how she would portray her home to the world. “What would you show people if you could?” I asked, feeling small. “I’d show them the love,” she said. “The community. The way people look out for each other.”
And just like that it was gone. Perhaps it doesn’t fit, perhaps it isn’t logical, but the wall I’d built to hold closeness at bay, the disparity between our two worlds, fell away. Home, it dawned on me, exists regardless of politics or power, and we have a responsibility to return to it. What Joanne said to me that Tuesday morning, about God “looking out” for us, is ultimately true. Joanne finds Him in church, through prayer, through the division of the world into light and dark. Janet finds Him in the neighbors who, after a flood, pile the community center with dry furniture and canned food. I don’t know where I find Him. Here, I suppose, among you. “Looking out,” as we all must do. And I hope I’ll be able to hold that, wherever I go, so that I am free to connect without hesitation or fear, with only the knowledge that God, or a next-door neighbor, or a lady in a far-away state who has a new porch to sit on, is always there to look out for us, if we’re willing to talk and listen.