Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Week in the Mountains

I just returned this evening from a missions trip just outside of Asheville, NC with my church and with four members of my small group of rising sophomore girls. We left on Sunday after church and drove for about 8 hours. My van had my girls, 4 freshmen boys and some junior girls. It was a long ride, and the younger ones were very excited. I tried to think of as many car games as possible, but I ran out of ideas pretty quickly. We played the game where you go around and each person says one word to contribute to telling a story. They made me die in every story, but I died in very creative ways. Once I was incinerated in a frog's uterus. Singing show tunes then became the entertainment of choice for the girls, which quickly put the rest of the bus on their iPods with pillows around their heads.

We got their late, around 10pm, ate cold pizza, got a brief run down of our week, the next day's schedule and some of the rules. The living conditions were not bad considering other mission trip accomodations I have heard of. We were inside an old school house that is being very gradually renovated with donations and some of the proceeds from program fees. We stayed in a large classroom with very old and dirty floors and our "mattresses" were four inch slabs of foam covered in nylon. We also had fans that sounded like jet engines to keep the room cool at night. At first I thought this would be a problem but it actually really helped drown out the noises of 36 high school girls in one room together, definitely a blessing. I ended up waking up every hour on the hour most nights because every time I turned I got twisted up in my sleeping bag and slid off the foam.

The first morning I woke up at 5 and decided I couldn't spend another second trying to sleep or in that room so I decided I'd go for a run. I didn't go far and the hills were major, but the quiet and the cool of the misty mountain morning made it well worth the effort and the lost sleep. I knew this would be a very important part of each day. The schedule started for everyone else with a wake-up call at 6am and breakfast at 6:30am. Each group there (three others besides ours were there the same week) was assigned cleaning duties in rotation after meals. We had breakfast on the first morning. Then we had a worship service from 7:30-8:30.

This worship service was different from any I had ever experienced. The other female leaders from my church and I were sitting together on the first morning in the back and we were behind our group so we could see most of their reactions. It started out by the lights in the old gym dimming, someone in the audio booth above blowing a very loud horn, and swing music starting and all the staff members at the camp gathering at the back and dancing and clapping while all the campers watched. Then a Chris Tomlin song called "Party" kicked us off and the staff runs to the front and starts dancing and clapping again. This particular song has the word shout in it about 50 times and every time that word comes up the staff would shout it. So the students from our group were totally shocked because we aren't used to this high-energy worship with dancing and shouting all the time. Two other churches were totally into it and were going nuts. After that song, a christian rap song came on, then one that had a line dance (I had no idea that there are people out there who line dance during worship songs) associated with it, that everyone else knew except us, and then another one where we were supposed to dance again. Our Pastor of Student Ministries, Travis, said that he thinks they found every song that had the word dance and shout in it and put them in the morning worship. This succession of songs was punctuated by one of the camp directors taking the microphone and doing a southern baptist style prayer yelling "O GOD" and then we would echo, then "OUR GOD" and we echoed, "ALMIGHTY GOD" then echo, and then the rest of the prayer in antiphonal yelling.

This pattern of worship songs never changed the whole week. What did change was the participation level from our students. The first morning only two people from our group, two of my freshmen girls actually, chose to dance and join the "party". By then end of the week, we all knew the line dance, had memorized the chorus of the rap song, and perfected our go-to crazy dance moves. I am still sort of reeling from it because as far as worship goes, give me a pipe organ and a hymn from antiquity over contemporary worship songs any day. I also have a problem with lots of shouting when I'm not fully awake yet. I think some other people did too but the kids loved it and they continued to sing the songs for the rest of the week, all throughout the work days and at night. I am fully convinced that I could never work at this camp, nor would they ever hire me.

Our job for the week was to replace a roof and repaint a house in a very poor area of Asheville. Nathaniel Wiley owned the home we worked on and the first day I went in to meet him and find a little bit about him. His wife died a long time ago, he was in the navy and fought in Guadalcanal and other South Pacific battles from WWII, and he used to enjoy gardening. He was a little wary of social interaction at first but it turned out he just needed to be drawn out a little. He answered any question you asked and he was always very nice about it. His home was in severe disrepair. It looked as though it hadn't been cleaned or taken care of in many years. My small group girls and I basically worked together the first part of the week. We all started off painting on the first day, and some of us got up on the roof and tore off old shingles and started replacing the rotten boards in the roof. The first time I walked into the backyard I saw that he had years of junk collected and that his gardening hobby had been left by the wayside. Everything was overgrown, covered in ivy or creepers, and nothing had been there for less than 5 years judging by the extreme rust present. I decided that this backyard would become my baby. I worked on it for two and a half days, tore down a shed that was falling apart, removed old lawnmowers, washing machines, ovens, tires, bottles, barrels, tools, pipes and anything else I saw laying around back there. We ended up filling two huge industrial sized dumpsters with the junk and debris from the backyard.

Wednesday we had a day off from working to break up the week and we started off by going back to sleep after the morning worship service. Then we drove out to a local nursing home and visited with some of the residents for the last part of the morning until lunch. I met an older gentleman named Earle Davis and I had a lot of fun listening to him tell me about his days as a salesman and sharing his Hershey bar with him. He made me promise to write him and tell him all about my life and he told me threatening stories about people who promised to write before but didn't. Everyone I met in the home had grown up in western North Carolina and had spent all of their lives there. I learned some mountain-speak from the director of activities who had to help me interpret some of their sentences. I heard a man named Hank play a continuous loop of Hank Williams songs on his dobro. Really liked that guy. We could definitely be friends. He would laugh during the middle of the songs and try to explain them to us but he didn't have any teeth so we had some trouble. He seemed especially tickled by the ones with men chasing after women who couldn't be caught. And all-around it seemed like the entire group had a good morning visiting the people in the home. Many said later it was their favorite part of the week. Lots of the freshmen boys were told they were very handsome and teased mercilessly about their good looks and charm. Those unfortunate ones were also teased by the rest of the group for the rest of the week as soon as their impact on the elderly women became public knowledge.

That afternoon we drove out to Pisgah National Park and went to "Sliding Rock" which is a natural water slide. The water was 50 degrees and when I hit the pool at the bottom it took my breath away it was so cold. I came up breathing short and quickly but the shock of cold felt great once I was in the sun drying off. I took videos of most of the group going down the slides and I hope they will make good contributions to the inevitable DVD recap that will be made. After the sliding rock we drove a short ways to a small picnic site at the foot of a trail. Our leader had told us that the hike we were doing was not really a hike but a "light stroll" and that we wouldn't need sneakers, flip flops were fine. Well, this was not entirely true. The hike included several steep gradients and had some rough terrain on it. Most were just wearing $1 Old Navy flip flops and they all had a word with Travis after the hike was over. Incredulous cries of "LIGHT STROLL??? FLIP FLOPS??" could be heard at most points along the 5-mile trail. Also, the students decided it would be funny if they did their own rendition of the morning antiphonal yelling prayer. I was bringing up the rear and I could hear the yells coming from up front. After we got back from the hike we got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove to a lookout point where we did our evening "Porch Time" where we ate dinner, shared stuff that happened during the day and did a bible study. The sun was setting and we were overlooking a valley with several rock structures. We sang some songs and it was a generally lovely day, save some sore feet.

Thursday and Friday were our last days on the work site. We had to sprint to finish what we could on Friday and I feel like we still could have gotten more done. We were a little limited by the number of ladders we had and also by the fact that we were not skilled painters or roofers so everything we did was slow and at times sloppy. We had to do a lot of touch-ups and do-overs. On Friday I spent some more time indoors talking to Nathaniel and helping some of the students clean the inside of his house as well as throw out the years of stuff that had accumulated in there. To give you an idea, he had aspirin bottles from 1950 and Listerine from 1960. We tried to help him get a start on those and it seemed like the bit that we did for him gave him an attitude of possibility instead of defeat. He started to help us clean things out and participate in the process instead of just letting us bring stuff and ask if we could throw it away. He liked to spend his days putting puzzles together and we filled 8 large trash bags of just puzzles he had done and didn't want any more.

I am really thankful to the staff from the camp that helped us. They spend their entire summer doing construction projects like this and teaching young kids how to roof and paint and getting up and yelling and dancing every morning so the kids can catch their excitement. I can say with absolute certainty I could never do what they do. It was a blessing to have them. On Thursday night my small group and I were hanging out in the large breakfast room and a couple of the staff members came over and hung out with us for a little while. The girls loved it and it was interesting to see how much of an interest they took in these people who gave up their summers, their friends , and their homes (three of the most sacred things to a teenager) to live in this rural part of North Carolina and help people without means to rebuild their homes. They asked good questions and it made them think.

Tuesday evening after we were done with the work day my girls decided to tackle and tickle me until I told them about every boyfriend I have ever had and about my first kiss and all that fun girl talk stuff. I didn't mind telling them too much but they were hilarious about it. They hung on every word and asked questions about all the guys and told me they were all SO dumb for breaking up with me or whatever happened. Sometimes it feels good to have such blind loyalty and side-taking even though I know that much of the blame rests on me as well. It was a really good bonding moment for us as a group. I saw all of the girls grow a lot too. Friday night, our last night, we had a special study and lesson to recap all that we had done and help the students process what they had seen and listening to the girls talk about it afterwards and hearing their reactions I could see that they were open to the possibility of change and that this truly was an unforgettable week for them. They were all very sad to leave and go back and face "real life". I see it on most of the trips that I go on with the chapel, that people feel really safe when surrounded by all their church-going peers and that it's an environment they feel they can't fail in. Travis even spoke to that issue in the Friday night talk, he challenged them to carry the lessons they had learned this week into the rest of their year and to hold on to the changes that they felt called to make and to really institute them. I saw everyone there take those words to heart. Even the silliest of the girls listened and were very affected by the talk. Putting it into practice will be the hard part of course, but Travis' challenge did not fall on deaf ears.

After that we broke the seriousness by trying to get into town in time to watch the fireworks. We missed them, and so we pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store, Travis went in to buy ice cream novelties, and someone decided it would be an excellent time for a dance party. So we turned on any dance music that we had and all 46 of us started to rock out and cheer any time we saw a firecracker. Then all the boys started boarding the buses and rocking and shaking them. Everyone was in high spirits and we ended the night by serenading the parking lot with a rousing rendition of Tom Petty's classic "Free Falling". That night was one for the books.

Saturday we got up at the same time, cleaned our room, loaded the buses and started to long trip back home. Everyone was really quiet on the way back, nowhere NEAR the same as the trip out. But as we neared Williamsburg the younger girls and guys started to get a little crazy again. At this point they the girls had all developed either an issue or a crush on a boy and I was much relieved that they were finally able to separate. We got back to Williamsburg, I said hello to some parents, then picked up my stuff and went to go get my car. I can't remember the last time I was so happy to get home. I instantly started my laundry because I knew if I waited I would just fall asleep. I unpacked, went to the grocery store to get some food and stuff to put on the poison ivy I got, and then popped in a movie. I fell asleep on the couch about a half-hour into it.

I am so happy that the week went as well as it did and that I was able to spend so much quality time with my girls. I am also happy that I am no longer awakened by people shouting, that I am required to do energetic singing and dancing before 8am and that I am not in constant contact with freshmen boys any more. It's going to be a busy July and I'm really glad it got off to such a good start.

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