Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unplugged in Appalachia

Have you ever had an unplugged moment when you saw the world for what it was—its beauty and its downfall?

When I came home from a weekend mission trip in the Appalachian mountains with my church, my world looked different.

It was as though God pulled the plug on all the distractions that were weighing me down and keeping me from Him.  I thought of one of my teenager’s favorite rock songs called Comatose.  The band Skillet wrote it to describe the world around us as filled with people living in a comatose state—minds saturated with media and world messages that keep us from seeing the reality of God.  The CD artwork shows a little boy standing with a spellbound look on his face and a giant plug, which he must have just pulled out from a wall.  When you open the artwork, you see what he’s looking at—a twisted discombobulation of electronics which must have been keeping him in a comatose state, until that moment.

This weekend brought my family to that moment where the bigger picture came into view.  I wanted to describe it for those of you who prayed over us and wanted to know how it went, and for some of you who haven’t yet tried a mission trip, to encourage you to go and see what it does in your heart!

Some of you are visiting from the Proverbs 31 blog, so you already know the introduction.  The details follow.

My two older kids and I joined a team of thirty people from my church who partnered with Samaritan’s Feet to bring hundreds of pairs of shoes to a coal mining town in Virginia.

The little church we worked with in Virginia allowed us to set up in their basement and added their hands to our team. The pastor there has a heart for his town and welcomed us with open arms, encouraging his church members to roll up their sleeves and work side by side with us--one team on a mission.  We set up twenty stations with basins of warm sudsy water and brought the children and teens individually in with their parents.  Each individual received personal treatment from a team member. These are the steps we went through:
·     Greeting them - We greeted them and explained how we wanted to first honor them by washing their feet before giving them new shoes. 
·     Washing - We then began to wash, explaining how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to show His love and to humble Himself before them. 
·     Bracelet - As we washed, we offer the child (with the parent’s permission) a colorful bracelet that helped us to tell the story of the gospel. 
·     The Gospel - We had the child, teen, or the parent read what’s on the bracelet. Meanwhile, we talked them through the Gospel story—black for sin, red for Christ’s blood, blue for our faith in accepting the gift of Christ, white for forgiveness, green for growth, and gold for Heaven. 
·     Receiving Christ - We ask if they’ve ever accepted Christ and would they like to pray to accept Him into their hearts.  Most wanted to, but we completely respected if someone wasn’t interested and moved on to give them their shoes.
·     New shoes – We dried their feet, placed new socks and a brand new pair of shoes on their feet.
·     Prayer - As we fitted them with new shoes, we asked if there is anything in their lives they would like us to pray with them over.  Most wanted us to.
·     Connection to the church - Many times the final step was to introduce them to the local church (the pastor or one of the church members) to get them connected.

We expected nods and polite gestures as we washed their feet like Jesus did and told them about the Gospel and what Christ did for them.  What we didn’t expect was a rampant grabbing onto the gospel—a more than willingness, a craving to ask Christ into their hearts. 

We expected a need for prayer, what we didn’t expect was the shared stories of abuse and neglect and badly placed foster situations and parents in jail or on drugs.  We didn’t expect open hearts that shared their stories and asked for open prayer. 

We expected smiles over new shoes, but what we didn’t expect was the need—children walking in on bare socks that stuck out through worn soles of old shoes, feet crusted with dirt and grime and shoes so old that mold grew on what was left of the canvas.

Our limited exposure gave some of us an impression that perhaps poor management and oversight in local government only worsened problems of poverty, drugs, abuse and homelessness. We met a woman who had her home razed to make way for a new coal mine. She showed us the photograph of her lost home. She now lives in a trailer like many in the town do. Many children or teens came with no parent. Many don’t live with parents. One downtrodden little girl hardly mumbled to me when I asked if her parents were there. “My uncle,” she whispered as she pointed to an unkempt man in the back of the room. Her little brother explained to my 13-year-old son who was washing his feet, "my uncle kicks me every morning when I wake up.” Brian prayed with him, and walked him through the little bracelet he gave him that explained how Christ died for his sins, and then helped the boy pray to receive Christ.

Another child surprised Brian. "Mom," Brian said. "When I went to take the boy's shoes off, I grabbed the bottoms of his shoes but felt socks instead. His shoes had no heels. It was just the top of the shoes and the front-- there was nothing but socks his heels were walking on. The little boy was so happy to get a pair of shoes."

A teen from the church in the town we partnered with joined us in the foot washing. She sat next to my 15-year-old washing feet and praying with people to receive Christ. During a break she shrugged and explained to him what it was like growing up there. "It's really hard to be a Christian here in the school. So many kids are having sex and doing drugs. It's not like they even think its wrong because most of their parents are doing it too. It's hard to not do what everyone else is doing. My brother went to a party and got stabbed and was left to die in a field. A helicopter picked him up and took him to a hospital. That was a while back. I don't know where he is now. I just know he's brain damaged now. I've lived in too many foster homes to count. I'm a lucky one. I'm in church. No one around here goes to church. They're all hooked on meth by the time they're my age and you're lucky just to finish high school." Of course as outsiders, we don't know how much of a teen's story falls to elaboration, but what we saw was the core reason for the poverty.

Our pastor's wife chatted with a little boy while painting his face. He and his two sisters and a brother came with a foster parent. "Baby," she said, "where's your mama?" The boy said as casually as though she was just at the grocery store... "Oh, Mama, she's in jail." His face brightened. "But she'll be home in about 8 years."

A woman who so obviously loves the Lord told us she's a great grandmother (no older than me) who has already raised 18 children. She explained why her five-year-old granddaughter is such a handful. "She was abused in the worst way by a foster dad when she was three. I was so busy raising my other great grandchildren I didn't even know she had been taken away from her mom and dad until a few weeks passed. I got her out of there as soon as I knew she was in the foster care. I knew right away something was wrong with her because she wouldn't talk. It was a year later when another family accused the man of abuse."

Our team drove through the town to pray for it. So many trailer parks, many run down with police ribbons around them because of a drug bust. Methamphetamines run rampant.

The town also has 50 churches-- all close to empty except for the older traditionalists. Anyone thinking they need to go across the world to deal with poverty need to open their eyes. It's a simple car ride to the next state.

Please don’t read this and think the weekend was depressing. We expected the poverty, so we didn’t let it get us down. It’s what God's doing through the beautiful hearts of a tiny church in that coal mining town and what we were allowed to experience with them that’s uplifting. Here are some incredible moments for me...

A teen girl put her feet in the sudsy water and sulked. I wondered if her makeup and clothing was just the style or a sign that she had already headed into a hard life full of the pain of consequences of poor choices. She was friendly enough and wanted the bracelet I offered. She said she'd never been to church but she'd heard of Jesus-- didn't seem interested. I walked her through the black color on the band. She nodded when I spoke of sin, and did a kind of eye roll when I moved on to the red part of the band-- blood. I first described the blood as punishment for sin and her eyes glazed over. No one likes hearing that sins have to be paid for. Then I explained how when I was her age I went to a church that made me feel like I had to live perfectly to get to Heaven and that if I had any sin on me I had to pay for it somehow-- either Hell or something I do here to make up for it. Her eyes still glazed over.

"But that was wrong," I said. I bent down to wash her feet while I kept talking. "Jesus took your punishment for you. He died on the cross so that you don't have to and all you have to do is accept that He died for you and that you're forgiven and it's done. You don't have to do anything else. You don't have to work your way into Heaven." I kept washing and then I heard....

"Really? That's it?" she said. Startled, I looked up at the teen's face. She had a surprised look in her eyes and a tear on her cheek. "Is that really true?" she asked. To see the earnest relief in her eyes choked me up. I didn't want to embarrass the girl so I didn't pry. It seemed obvious her tears were for something she felt ashamed of and that she liked hearing that it's easy to be forgiven.

We take for granted that people have already learned about the gospel. So few know it and so many want and need it. She prayed with me to invite Christ in her life and I told her that many people will try to tell her that there are other things she needs to do to get to Heaven but if she's sincere about accepting God's grace's she's already forgiven. I told her it's true even if her life takes a rough direction and she makes bad choices. God still loves her, no matter what. She got up and hugged me.

My thirteen year old was washing the feet of a teen that was obviously too old to be a teen- like about 21 or so. Brian is a quiet kind of guy—small for his age so that he looks even younger, like 11 or so. But there he was washing this twenty-something’s feet while talking to the guy about Christ. What a moment to see your child doing that!

Once he was done putting new shoes on the guy he asked, "What can I pray with you about?" The young man, goatee on his chin and earring in his brow, gave Brian a list, "well little guy, ya see that girl over there-- she and I have been dating about 3 years now. And we're thinking on moving in together." My eyes got big as this guy went on and on with my little boy who never meets people whose problems are bigger than can their parents afford to get them a cell phone. I'm thinking I'd have to rescue Brian and step in to pray in his place.

Brian didn't need that, and he didn’t skip a beat. He grabbed both the guy's hands and shut his eyes, praying as boldly and articulately as though this guy’s circumstance was normal and simple. "Dear God, please help this guy and his girlfriend set up a happy home and get married, and help them with their choices and protect them." He amazed me. It’s so easy to underestimate what God can do with even the smallest of hearts.

And that’s simply who we are. Serving in such a concentrated way doesn’t increase you, it makes you smaller, as you should be. When we returned home and found ourselves in that moment, unplugged from our routine and from the comatose nature of centering our hearts on the problems of the day, we see the reality. That when we finally allow ourselves to become lesser, God becomes bigger in us and we can finally be used. Like little Brian being used to pray with someone twice his size and pulling it off in a huge way.


Kathy said...

I cried as I read this, and then I read it to our young volunteer at the orphanage. What a beautiful way to minister God's love to people! You are so right when you say we don't have to go across the world to deal with poverty. Everywhere there are hurting people, many of them suffering in the ways you have described, who need to know that Jesus loves them, and that He's paid the price to reconcile them to the Father. What you did is a beautiful picture of humbly serving the lease of these. So glad your kids were a part of this. Bless you and your family for letting Jesus use you. May you never be the same!

Kitty @ Four Little Toms and a Mom said...

Thank you for your encouragement, Kathy. It was great to hear it from someone so seasoned at mission work. I can't claim any credit for any impact that was made. Of course it was the Grace of God, but the seasoned experience of the mission pastor was critical to success of this project!

Amy C said...

Kitty, I loved reading this. I just came home from a small coal mining town yesterday. It's amazing what God can bring us to and how we can chose to allow Him to work through us. The writing reminded me so much of my trip and a trip I took to cherokee a few years back to do some work there on a mission trip. It was amazing and you are right, we don't have to go very far to see the need all around us. Thank you for sharing so much!

RJ Rose said...

Kitty, thank you for writing this beautiful aritcle and thank you and your team for coming to Coeburn to minister. I have heard about several children going to school this week showing off their new shoes to their teachers and other classmates. Please continue to pray for us here in Coeburn.
Pastor RJ Rose
First Baptist Coeburn

Kitty @ Four Little Toms and a Mom said...

Amy, I can't wait to read all about your travels. Thank you for encouraging us and sharing about your experiences with a coal mining town. I'm convinced more needs to be done to help these people help themselves!

Kitty @ Four Little Toms and a Mom said...

Pastor RJ, your church and your ministry is amazing. Our team was inspired by the passion that's been placed in your heart for you people in your town, and we loved the openness and humility of the people in the town. We can't wait to come back and serve again.

Eleanor said...

Thanks Kitty, I am going to share this with a young man (16) who will be doing mission work with his church in that area of Virginia.

Liz Anne said...

Kitty - I too am a widow with 4 boys (mine are ages almost 12, almost 9, 5 1/2, and 3 1/2). I am constantly and consistently amazed how God works in them and through them despite what they have been through. He is so gracious! It sounds like He has been working in the same way in your lives, and I praise Him for that. Keep on keepin' on -- it is an encouragement to me to hear your story.

Christine said...

Thanks for writing about this time. It was such a gift to be able to be a part of this. The town of Coeburn, Pastor RJ just have know idea how much they have in packed out team.

Elizabeth said...

Kitty, you do so much good in His name! I'm sorry I haven't read in a while, but I wanted to let you know that you won a free Christmas CD on a giveaway on my blog. I included all the followers, so that's how you won! I think you'll really love it. My friend lives in TN and is a youth minister there and performs in the Miracle pageant at Pigeon Forge. Anyway, I'm trying to share the amazing talent he has, hence the giveaway. Feel free to email me your address, if you are interested! And if you're nervous, I could mail it to the P.O? I've never done a giveaway, so let me know what you are comfy with:)

Kitty @ Four Little Toms and a Mom said...

Thanks, Elizabeth!

I'll contact you about the CD. How sweet!

Kitty @ Four Little Toms and a Mom said...

Liz Anne, you have so much to be thankful for! Boys love their moms and in this season of your life, your fortunate to have so much love around you! Thanks!

Kitty @ Four Little Toms and a Mom said...

Elanor, thank you! I'd love to hear how the young man's mission trip goes!