Where do you see hope? I found hope on a subway floor, offering a sandwich to a homeless man named Irving. In our conversation, I learned that he choose to live in the subway instead of a shelter and that one of the hard parts of living in a shelter is that you have to hold all your stuff while you’re in the shower or it will get stolen. While chatting, he asked me the question: “If you had a billion dollars, what would you do with it?” His answer was amazing. He said he’d hand out new house keys to the people living in the subway. He also said, “Sometimes the rich are really the ones who are homeless.” I wonder how many times I’ve chosen to be homeless.
As I continued chatting with Irving, I learned that he was moving into an apartment in two days. His excitement beamed through his eyes. I was there to offer hope and found that it was him who was offering hope. Who knew that I would see Irving again the next day while serving lunch in a soup kitchen to over 200 other men? We were both excited to recognize each other and share in the excitement of him moving to his new home the next day.
Earlier that evening in the subway, I offered a sack supper to a man who didn’t speak English. I’m not really sure what language he spoke, maybe a cousin of Spanish. He had so many things to say and for a rare moment, I just stood and listened. Smiling, nodding, but with no spoken words for him to understand. I wonder how many times other people have walked by without pausing. All he wanted was someone to listen, to be present.
Before the subway, that evening began in a dark, freezing park. It was the first workday of our Young Adult Mission Trip with the Center for Student Missions in Philadelphia. The morning began with organizing Christmas presents for the next giveaway (last year they gave away presents to 2,600). In the middle of a dusty old gym surrounded by random kids’ toys, we bonded and created our new rock band: “Sparkly Kitty, Reindeer, and the Hairnets.” While, I had an awesome time with our group, it’s not the type of service activity that I find myself drawn. After lunch, we began helping at an after school program. It was great to bond with the kids and it was amazing to see how much they loved us after the first five minutes. I worked with kids that are my daughter’s age, so felt useful and in my comfort zone. I realized that I take for granted the time Rhea and I spend doing homework or reading together and what a difference that time really makes. I was also reminded how after school programs become a second family for many students. As a side note, it was awesome to recognize that a couple of the people on our trip originally connected to First Church through the after school program we had with Gateway years ago.
Let’s go back to the freezing park. We weren’t just feeding the hungry, handing a sack supper and walking away. We were talking with the people that we met, offering prayers for those who wanted to pray, living out Matthew 25:34-40. For the first time, I noticed how everyone took off their gloves to shake our hands. It was freezing! Taking off my gloves didn’t even cross my mind…until I saw them take off their gloves. ‘Passing the peace of Christ’ now has a whole new meaning to me. In church, I’m so willing to shake the hands of those around me. Why do I only say ‘hi’ to our Heartside neighbors in the morning? When I get back, hand-shaking (peace-passing) will be a new addition to my morning greetings.
In Philly, I was reminded that homeless ≠ hopeless and that mission trips aren’t just about serving others. One of the most touching parts of our trip was how our group connected. Our group was made up of three people from GVSU’s Wesley Foundation and fourteen people connected to First Church. Many of the fourteen from First Church were young adults who had been very involved throughout the years, yet have not been as connected recently. As our group united, I caught a glimpse of how the dad must have felt when his prodigal son returned. Not that our students were out ‘living it up’, but how I’ve missed them in their absence. Each person brought a unique part to our group that encouraged growth and trust. We became friends who walk (or even run) side-by-side in a meaningful, joyous faith community. By the end of each day, my stomach ached from the time spent laughing and my face hurt from smiling. That’s the kind of pain I like to feel at the end of a day! I guess that’s what Pastor Tish meant when quoted Buechner this Sunday: "The kind of work God usually calls you to...is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
Emily's blog about our trip: http://emolyspace.blogspot.com/2012/03/monday-in-philly.html (check Tuesday & Wednesday too)
Amelia's blog about our trip:
“And now these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13. Not only did this verse have its own special devotion on our trip, but it can also summarize everything I felt and everything I grew in this week. Looking back at the beginning of the week I would say these were the three areas in my life that I was struggling with the most. Losing my uncle unexpectedly, not being able to be involved with His House and Young Adults due to afternoon clinicals last semester and having to retake Med-Surg have all contributed to my faith being shaken severely. Over the last eight weeks I found myself struggling to hold on to the hope that God’s plans for my life includes being a pediatric nurse. Finally there was showing love, not to my family and friends, but to go out of my way to show love and care towards the less fortunate.
We left church around 6:00 on Friday afternoon and spent most of Friday evening and Saturday morning driving to Philadelphia. If it wasn’t for van-versations there probably wouldn’t have been much talking during those twelve hours. Sami strategically split Jen and me up, which turned out to be a good thing. It helped me get out of my comfort zone and begin talking to the strangers surrounding me.
We made it to Philadelphia around 3:00. After dropping our luggage off at the CSM site it was time to tour the city. We started off by getting Philly cheesesteaks from Pat’s and Geno’s for lunch. They're both on the same street corner and they have had a rivalry going on for the longest time. Jen and I decided to get a sandwich from each place and share. We didn’t order them exactly alike so it was hard to properly compare the two. After lunch it was time to walk around. We got to see City Hall (and debated over who we thought the man on top of the building was; it turned out to be William Penn so we were all wrong), a little square that had monopoly pieces, bingo chips, dominoes, and trouble pieces scattered around, and the famous Love Statue. After walking through Chinatown we made it to our vans and returned to CSM to get much needed sleep.
On Sunday we attended service at St. George’s UMC, the oldest United Methodist Church in the United States. Afterwards we stopped for lunch in the Historical district of town and we met Brett and Valerie from the Simple Way, who explained their organization to us. We did some more walking and were able to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall (where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written and adopted), and Betsy Ross’ home and were able to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum like in Rocky. We then went back to CSM and met our hosts, Nicole, Kelsey and Sarah (who only was with us until Monday), and went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. It was then time to begin our mission work by going on a prayer tour. We started near City Hall and made our way to a nearby bridge. We got out of the vans and were asked how we would feel if we were left behind in the wind and cold and were asked to survive the night. We learned that bridges aren’t an uncommon place to find homeless men and women sleeping at night and that the average age of homelessness in 9-years-old. We drove around the city, seeing both the richest areas and the poorest. We stopped several times to gather in a group and pray. At one point of the prayer tour Nicole had us listen to the song “God of This City” and as we turned on the highway we could see the city lit up. The tour ended with us stopping in a park that overlooked the entire city, which looked beautiful lit up underneath the starry night sky. We were told to try seeing the city through God’s eyes. Not only does He see the different districts and the people but He sees the city as a whole, which is something we got to experience during the tour.
We began volunteering at different organizations on Monday. We were split into two teams: Team Rojo Grande (Nicole, Sami, Iain, Caitlin, Mike, Tim, Tony, Clarence, Lauren, and me) and Team Rental (Kelsey, Emily, Greg, Jen, Brenna, Precious, Shelby, Chris and Casey). The first place we went was to a place called City Team where we sorted and organized bins of children’s Christmas toys. Sami and Nicole started the band Sparkly Kitty Reindeer, which included Iain playing the saxophone, Tony playing the recorder, and me playing the Dora guitar. We had a lot of fun looking through the toys. A Magic 8 Ball told me I would marry a Tennessee Cowboy and that Sami and Iain would be my flower girls (which is important to know for Tuesday). Once we were done there and had lunch we went to the Lighthouse to help with an afterschool program. Half of our group stayed behind to play and entertain preschoolers while the other half went to another building to tutor and play with elementary school children. I sat down at a table of kindergarteners and first graders and after asking for names a boy named Luis gave me a note that said “You are nice.” I helped them with their homework and then we got to go upstairs to play. The girls from my table had me playing tag and ring-around-the-rosie with them. The girls also taught Sami and me a couple cheerleading moves (most of which ended with the splits). We returned to the first building and played more ring-around-the-rosie and Sami Says before we left to meet Team Rental for supper. Afterwards we did Hands for Hope, where we walked around a park and inside the subway to give sack lunches and words of encouragement to the homeless that we met. I couldn’t help but be inspired by the words of kindness and faith that I heard or have my heart broken by a man who was impossible to understand but simply wanted someone to listen to him. It made me think about how many times these men and women must be ignored on a daily basis and how important companionship is during the most challenging times.
The next morning started with a walk through Chinatown. We were able to try something from a bakery and got to see the Friendship Gate (made out of fortune cookies… who know? lol). After that we went to St. John’s Hospice to help serve lunch to over 200 homeless men. Nicole and Sami’s band grew to include the Hairnets because of the hairnets we had to wear. When lunch started being served Sami and I were at the beginning of the line so we were responsible for greeting the men and giving them their trays. We were called beautiful by a few of the men and everyone we met seemed to be so happy and grateful for our service. After lunch we had some free time so we went to a park along the river. We annoyed Tony with the Yellow Car game, played some charades, and I ended up getting “married” to my Tennessee cowboy, aka Mike. After building up our energy we returned to the Lighthouse and I almost fell on the stairs when Angelica and Anaya (two of my first graders) ran over to me from the entrance and tackled me with hugs. I helped them and Jenivette (a kindergartener) with their homework and when I told Jenivette I was studying to be a nurse she told me she wanted to be a nurse too. We had time to play again and this time the girls wanted to jump off this small slide and have me catch them. It amazed me how much trust and faith they had in me for only knowing me a few hours. After playtime we walked back to meet with the preschoolers and I had kids asking me to carry their coats and backpacks. Jenivette and a boy both grabbed on to my right hand and I was told everyone wanted to hold my hand because I was so nice to all of them. Our day at the Lighthouse ended with kids gathering around me on the floor and me making shapes out of play-doh.
Wednesday was a tough day simply because it was our last day of service. Our entire group was together in the morning and we went to a place called Philabundence, where they fill boxes that are given to different organizations throughout the city and are delivered to anyone who is struggling to provide a meal for their family. We were assigned different areas on the conveyor belt and we began filling the boxes. We also played telephone and sent inspiring messages to each other to help pass the time. We ended up filling 840 boxes and were told that the average number of boxes filled in a day is 700. We had lunch in the park we went to during the prayer tour and had time to play Frisbee and be entertained by the Whispering Wall. We did devotions in the lovely spring atmosphere and once again split up for our after school programs. It was hard enough knowing I had to say goodbye to the girls that day but it became even harder when Jenivette didn’t get dropped off. I decided to use my last couple of hours playing with Anaya, Angelica and Sarai. Anaya started crying because they couldn’t go to the park and I helped calm her down by giving her a piggy back ride across the gym and by spinning in circles with her until the room started spinning so much I thought I was going to get sick. I had group naptime with Angelica and Anaya joined us by covering me in coats and using me as a pillow. Naptime quickly turned into beauty salon and before I knew it Angelica, Anaya, and Sarai were playing with and braiding my hair. I asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up. Angelica wants to be an ice cream truck driver (I told her I would be her number one customer), Sarai said she wants to be a dentist, and Anaya wants to go to beauty school (and for being only 6 or 7 she was really good at braiding hair). The afternoon ended with goodbyes, giving the girls hugs and having them tell me that they love me. As we left to meet the other group for dinner I felt a big piece of my heart being left behind for the children we met. We then had dinner at a place called Jim’s for more cheesesteaks (which I thought were the best). We also were able to convince two locals that Mike and I were actual newlyweds. We were given an hour to walk around the strip and then it was back to CSM for debrief, packing, and going to bed early.
We had the vans packed and left CSM around 7:00. We made a stop in Kensington and joined Brett and Valerie, as well as a few other people, at the Simple Way for Morning Prayer. It was wonderful to start the morning off with readings, scripture and song and to hear the sounds of the community. We then got into the vans and made the long drive home to Grand Rapids. We had more van-versations, played the Tollbooth game numerous times, and had fun hanging up signs in our back window for the guys to see. The last part of the trip was spent with our mission groups and it was obvious nobody wanted to sleep. We did affirmations to everyone in our group, told jokes for the longest time, and had group story time (which started with Sami telling me a story about a princess and a horse and somehow grew to include zombies, Pikachu, and who knows what else). We made it back to GR around 10:30 at night and after giving hugs, saying goodbye, and being dropped off by Sami’s Speedy Shuttle Service with a Smile at 54th St Meijer, I arrived home around midnight. The last couple days have been spent looking at hundreds of pictures and trying to get over the withdrawal that came with the trip ending.
My trip started out with thoughts that Philadelphia could not be nearly as impactful as Nashville was last year and it ended with so many wonderful memories and excitement to get involved with organizations in Grand Rapids. My faith has grown substantially as I reflect on just how many opportunities God has blessed me with to serve Him and for all of the chances He’ll continue giving me to serve. I have new hope that even though I may have to wait a little longer to become a nurse, I will get there and I be able to make so many children feel better; I also feel hope for all of the men and children that I met in Philly and I know that God has great futures for them as well. Finally, my heart feels as if it is overflowing with love that needs to be shared. I love everyone I serve with, which is wonderful since most of us have only known each other a week, and I have love that I want to share with all of those I meet, especially those who are struggling. Just as 1 Corinthians 13:13 ends with “but the greatest of these is love”, I believe it is love that I am feeling the most right now and I can’t wait to continue spreading it to others.