Reflections from a Service Camp

Reflections from a service camp

(Service camps are a greater portion of our ministry than most OFers realize. We greet –or more likely “pass” — them in worships some Sundays. {Perhaps when they are with us, we need to make ways to include their experiences and reflection in our worship?} Even staff, the few lay leaders and the Outreach SLG that have much more interaction with service camp participants are often left wondering about the longer term effects of their experiences on their faith and life. Hingham Congregational Church (UCC) was with us in early August. The day after they got back to Massachusetts, they shared reflections with their home church. They are sharing them with us too.)

Last night our “small but mighty” (Rev. Pete’s words) adult mission team returned from Philly. We were tired but elated after a week of truly amazing experiences. This was my third adult mission trip and each has been very different.

Our work sites were spread out over the city. We served meals to the homeless and hungry; we moved furniture, cleaned, hung clothes and helped organize a Veterans thrift shop so that it could re-open; we assisted with a food drive; we cooked and served lunch to veterans at their multi-service center, followed by a spirited game of bingo; we gardened alongside those recovering from addictions; and we sorted through bags of clothing donations and ate lunch with residents of the Whosoever Gospel Mission, a non-profit organization devoted to providing shelter, food, clothing, education, counseling, rehabilitation and other assistance to homeless and needy men.

Our hearts were touched throughout the week as we felt the pain, marveled at the strength, listened to the stories, admired the courage, and shared a rich tapestry of scenarios with those who so graciously invited us into their lives. There were moments of humor, moments of sadness and many touching times, and each of us had different experiences that we reflected upon and shared at our nightly devotions.

I would like to share one of my favorite experiences with you. On our second day we went to New Jerusalem Now, a residential addiction treatment center in north Philly. At each site we were given an orientation, usually by the director of the program, but at New Jerusalem it was different. As we entered the house which served as their modest central office, we were greeted by Sister Margaret and Sister Sylvia.

I was struck by the beautiful, serene face of Sister Margaret who had helped to found the program; Sister Sylvia had returned to Philadelphia after a life devoted to working in the health care field in Pakistan.

We settled into a circle around the edge of the room, so our numbers increased as residents began to join us. And so began an amazing experience.

Sister Margaret started by outlining the history and mission of the program. Then we introduced ourselves, as did each resident in the room.

They had only just met us but somehow we were accepted and trusted and they shared their stories with us. How could we not be touched as we listened to the stories of those who had been in prison, those who had entered the program leaving wives, husbands and children behind. Some had been in the program for a few days, others a few months, and still others a few years. For some this was their first time at New Jerusalem, while others were returning. One such man was greeted like a long-lost brother and warmly welcomed back into the fold. We heard stories from those clearly committed to the program along with that of a young woman who was present in the room but her heart was dancing elsewhere in the party scene.

I sat next to John, newly arrived, and whose heart was broken as he was separated from his seven year old son, Bowen. I felt his pain.

I was overwhelmed by the courage of each man and woman in that room as they told their stories and opened their hearts to us. There was no pressure and no hurry but I am sure that each person gained strength and comfort from the gentle and compassionate smile of Sister Margaret.

After this powerful introduction, we were led out into the garden where we were to work. And what an amazing garden it was. We harvested Swiss chard, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini; we weeded and watered; we staked unruly plants and helped replace the rotted boards of raised beds. Some of the residents worked along with us, most notably Derek, Dan and Robert, and proudly displayed their carpentry and other skills. It was extremely hot but that didn’t stop the inspirational 85 year old Sister Margaret pitching in to pick tomatoes or Sister Sylvia gently directing operations.

Before we left it was picture time. The backdrop was at the side of the house with its striking mural and community peace garden designed and built by recovering addicts from the New Jerusalem community.
The residents wanted their picture taken with the Sisters, and then somehow we Mission Team members all squeezed in. As we said goodbye, and offered and received hugs, we were all filled with the gifts that we had received from these brave men and women trying to regain their lives under the safe, inspiring program at New Jerusalem Now. I pray that this will be so for each and every one of them.

All week we felt the presence of our HCC church family. We thank you for your support and blessing that made this trip possible, and I hope that many of you will be able to take part in a future mission trip.

As we worked and journeyed, we felt deep respect and gratitude towards our host agencies. This was a humbling week. I know that I grew as a person as the week progressed and I learnt that sometimes just listening to a hurting soul, non-judgementally, and being truly present in the moment, is as important as being busy.

— Caroline

* * * * * * *

Thank you so much, Caroline and Mark, for your meaningful remarks, and thank you again to the whole mission team for your contributions this morning.

My purpose this morning is to ground the reflections in scripture and Christian theology and to offer some encouragement and a challenge to you, our fellow travelers on this pathway of faith.

As you have heard, we had a very powerful experience in Philadelphia. We were welcomed into a very different world – truly welcomed with open arms.

But we were also confronted by varieties of suffering: addiction, mental illness, isolation, inequality, economic poverty, childhood homelessness, hopelessness, and more.

There are hundreds of passages that we could have chosen for this morning… passages that emphasize God’s deep love for the poor and marginalized… passages that admonish the rich for not caring for the poor… passages that encourage the faithful to care for those who are suffering… passages like the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew that suggest that when we meet the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner (and we met all of those this week), we encounter Jesus Christ himself.

But we chose this passage from Ephesians 4:25-5:2 in part because of its emphasis on personal transformation and love (to which God calls each of us). But there’s also that phrase, We are members of one another. We are members of one another.

How beautifully uncomplicated! How clear! What a wonderful way to approach other individual human beings and the whole of the human family. We are members of one another.

If that is true, that we are all connected (Paul thought it was true because he believed that Jesus thought it was true), then we know what we have to do, don’t we?

Because we live here on the South Shore, it’s a little harder to be in touch with those who are struggling, but it’s not impossible.

We went to Philly so that we would be out of reach of home, so that we could go deep with God and with one another, with a minimum of distractions and with a sense that we were on a spiritual pilgrimage.

But we don’t have to go to Philly. There is poverty and suffering in Rockland, Weymouth, Quincy, and yes, right here in Hingham. I hear that there’s even suffering in Cohasset. Who knew? And you will be hearing from our Outreach Board very soon about increased opportunities to serve the suffering, face to face this year (probably not in Cohasset).

If that feels a little overwhelming — or a little impossible — because of your already overfilled schedule or because of your own struggles, the good news is that God calls us together as a community to fulfill our calling to serve the hurting.

One of the refrains we heard over and over again from those who are in the trenches in Philadelphia, serving and helping the poor, was, “It is what it is.” In other words, This suffering is real. This situation is challenging. But we’re all doing our best.

We do not have to do it on our own and we do not have to solve addiction and poverty today, (although if anyone has any ideas, please let me know).

What we are called to do is to connect with our neighbors who need us, as best we can, to offer hope, and to receive the lessons they have to teach us about vulnerability before God and one another, and about faith in a better tomorrow. Amen

— Pastor Pete

See you in church (in another week),

MIchael