February 17 – 23, 13 youth (3 seniors, 3 juniors, 4 sophomores and 3 freshmen) and 4 adults (Ben Pulaski, Christine Tresselt, and Marty and Susan Rozmanith) went to Tuskegee, Alabama for a home repair mission trip with Alabama Rural Ministry. Three of the students – Harry Carpini, Jane Dodge, and Elizabeth Rozmanith – shared their experiences on Sunday, March 3 and I hope you go a chance to hear their message. (video is below) Because being a chaperone on this trip is a blessing of my life, I wanted to take a moment to share just a few of my own reflections here.
Great program. The Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) is a wonderful faith-based organization. Now in its 20th year, the organization has a tri-fold mission: sustainable homes, strong families, and community partnerships. We aren’t fixing people’s homes. They are fixing their own homes with the help of volunteers. The distinction is important. They are the decision makers, they take pride and ownership of the work, and this approach helps build connections between families and the community.
Great need. Alabama is among the poorest states in our nation, and the government skews against the poor in a cyclical systemic way. For instance, the state tax on food, all food, is 10%. And, the state constitution does not acknowledge the right to basic education, leading to a low literacy rate. In Macon County where Tuskegee is, 32% live under the poverty line. Many people live in mobile homes that just aren’t safe. I believe ARM told us that there are 3,000 houses in need of repair in Macon County alone. It felt good to be doing something, albeit small, to help this situation.
Faith moments. We paused several times each day for discussions and prayers. At lunch, we followed a wonderful discussion guide that ARM gave us. For example, our lunch break on Wednesday was about the importance of eating together. We read Mark 2: 15-17 (Jesus eats with the tax collectors). As we ate our sandwiches and oranges, we talked about relevant questions: What kinds of things divide us from other people in our society today? Why is it hard to break through these divisions like Jesus did? These discussions were incredibly thoughtful and rich.
Later in the day, after dinner, we broke into small groups for about 45 minutes to share highs and lows of the day, to talk about where we saw God, and other questions from the discussion guide that our marvelous Ben provided for us. Everyone is so open and honest and thoughtful during these times of reflection. The end of the night is reserved for candles and prayers, which is a meaningful and loving experience. I must include here the centering prayer/yoga session that Christine led on Tuesday, which ended in a joyous group hug. Anyone reading this who has experienced Christine’s yoga will understand why several of us said it was their favorite part of the week.
Interconnectedness. Not only did we have a great time deepening our faith and helping people by fixing up their houses, but we learned first-hand about poverty, social injustice and the history of slavery that denies people today access to education, proper housing, and opportunity.
Perspective. We spent our last day in Montgomery, Alabama, which is Ground Zero where hundreds of thousands of black people were trafficked in the domestic slave trade of the 19th century. Two sites opened in April 2018 related to America’s history of racial injustice and its legacy. We went to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the first national memorial dedicated to the legacy of people terrorized by lynching. It deeply moved us all. These are an outcome of the Equal Justice Initiative – founded by Bryan Stevenson, the highly acclaimed public interest lawyer committed to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. You may know him as the author of Just Mercy, which this year became a required reading book in one of the high school English classes.
Our week was filled with laughter. It was filled with patience. It was filled with many imperfect moments that made this a more meaningful trip than I could have imagined. I am filled with gratitude.