I had the opportunity to chaperone our middle school youth group’s trip to Asheville, NC, this past week. Asheville Youth Mission is a Christian organization that coordinates service opportunities for groups throughout the year in and around their mountain town. We took 13 teenagers and experienced six mission placements in a week.
We worked at Manna Food Bank where Michelle, four other kids and I “got” to rip open hundreds of mesh bags full of rotten, slimy okra and toss them into a compost pile. There was gagging and one episode of vomiting. Not me or my child. Michelle is used to disgusting food. She was just thankful that she didn’t have to eat it for dinner this time.
We planned a pirate party at a day care center for adults with severe intellectual disabilities. We shared some great jokes with our new friends:
What’s a pirate’s favorite country?
I left that afternoon both uplifted and incredibly grateful for my healthy children.
This was my second year at AYM, so I wasn’t surprised that I would be spiritually and emotionally moved at some point during the week. I just didn’t know how.
Day 1 was the okra; not moving – emotionally or spiritually. Perhaps gastronically, but that’s about all.
Day 2, however, hit me hard.
We pulled up to Hinds Feet Farm around noon. It was not a corn field. It was actually a safe place for people to go who suffer from traumatic or acquired brain injuries. These adults come to Hinds Feet Farm, held in the back of a church, daily, where they build friendships and participate in programs.
I was fortunate to break bread with Sarah, Jay and Vanessa, three of about 15 present last Tuesday. Jay immediately shared that Sarah was his wife; they both wore wedding bands. Sarah clarified that their marriage was spiritual, that at this point they were unable to live together and had not yet had an official ceremony.
After lunch, several of our new friends shared their stories. We learned that Sarah and Vanessa had been in car accidents. Vanessa’s was three days after she turned 16. Jay was hit in a brawl, fell backwards, and suffered significant bleeding on his brain.
Although their stories were inspiring, it was the lessons they shared that really hit home with me.
Each told us that they were intelligent; that they weren’t scary; that they just struggled with speech and with memory. They asked us to treat them like real people. Not to shy away from them. Not to assume they aren’t smart.
As I listened to them, I thought about all that is going on in the world today. Perhaps part of their struggles was my fault.
I don’t hang out with anyone who has a traumatic brain injury, so I simply don’t understand. In fact, I don’t really hang out with Muslims, the homeless, those outside of my socioeconomic sphere, transgender folks, etc., etc. Sure, I have acquaintances at work and throughout the community who are different from me, and, they are some of the nicest, most engaging people I know. But I’m not eating dinner with them on Saturday night. Instead, I spend my free time with my family (all lily white, middle class, southerners), and friends from church or clubs or my neighborhood (most lily white, middle class, southerners). I’m guessing it is difficult to truly understand others if you don’t spend significant time with them. In fact, Sarah said with slow, slurred speech, “You can’t understand if you don’t walk in someone else’s shoes. And your feet are probably the wrong size.” I think I should at least try them on.
At times, I get so frustrated with the unrest in our world. Things seem so dire. And yet, if I’m honest with myself, I can’t say that I’m doing anything to make it better. Perhaps I should spend a bit more time pondering my role in all of this. And maybe I should work a bit harder to connect with those who don’t look, act and think just like I do.