This is part one of at least two! Please stay tuned for the second piece. I will be on the road again this week, so I promise to write when I can!
I just spent a week in Knox County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachian Mountain coal country. I went with a group of adults and young adults from Trinity to serve with Appalachia Service Project, or ASP. ASP is an organization that helps make lower-income families' homes in Appalachia safer, warmer, and drier. You can visit their website at http://www.asphome.org/.
There is a lot of poverty in the Appalachian region of the U.S. One of the things that struck me during my time in Knox County was that we as affluent Americans always seem to think of poverty as an inner-city or a Third-World problem. My guess is that many people do not know about the extreme poverty that exists right in the heart of our country. There are not many opportunities for economic enrichment in Appalachia. The woman whose home we were repairing has lived in a trailer her entire life. When we asked her what she would do if she ever owned a home, she said she wouldn't know what to do with one. A run-down trailer is all she has ever known, and it is probably all she will ever know.
The woman on whose home we worked (I don't want to tell you her name for privacy's sake) makes about $600 per month from public assistance. She is unemployed and feeds her family (two sons and a daughter) and several animals with food stamps. The trailer was in complete disrepair, although it has a new roof and some new flooring because of work ASP did there last summer. We were there to replace the ceilings and insulation that have deteriorated because of previous water damage.
The work was hard, hot, and dirty. Six people in a small room in a tin trailer in June made for some sweaty and smelly work. Not to mention that bringing down rotted fiber-board ceiling and insulation also means wearing face-masks, goggles, long-sleeved shirts, and getting REALLY DIRTY! But the work was fulfilling as we saw the old insulation and ceiling come down, and the new insulation and ceiling go up, complete with new light fixtures and molding. It was nice to see the work taking shape, but even more magnificent was the look on our homeowner's face as she saw the rooms being transformed. It seemed like the little things, more than the big things, were what were most important for her. The new ceiling was great, but what she was really thrilled about were the new light fixtures, a newly-working ceiling-light switch in the bedroom, a no-longer-creaky floorboard, a fixed front screen-door spring, and a previously non-existent dryer vent in her bathroom.
I am still processing the importance of this experience for myself and for the homeowner who we got to know so well in such a short time. She has lived in Knox County her entire life, and has never been more than an hour from home. The fact that we came all the way from Pennsylvania just to help her was amazing to her. It also shows the contrast between our affluence and opportunity and hers. She will never have the chance to cross state lines to help someone else. One of the things that struck me is that in the town where we live, Pierre and I are not really considered well off at all. There are times when we really struggle to make ends meet. And yet, we have so much more than this woman, both materially and in terms of opportunity. It really puts things in perspective--maybe my problems aren't as bad as I think they are!
When I was in missionary orientation prior to moving to Africa, a man named Tony Gittins came and spoke to us about his missionary experience. He had spent 25+ years in Sierra Leone building houses, hospitals, and all kinds of buildings. After he left Sierra Leone, civil war broke out and all the buildings that he had worked so hard to build were destroyed. He said that people always asked him what he felt about the fact that everything he had built in Sierra Leone no longer existed. And he always replied that the work that he did that actually mattered wasn't building buildings--it was building relationships, and those couldn't be destroyed by war. What matters, he said, is the relationships you build, and the people you love, and the people who love you. THAT's what lasts, and that's what's important.
That's what I think ASP is about, too. Yes, making people's homes warmer, safer, and drier is an important and worthwhile task. However, the importance of the experience goes a long way beyond construction. We build relationships and minister to those families, and those families minister to us.