Words are not coming to me easily to describe this week, but perhaps that is the best possible way to feel right now. I am feeling homesick for a place that is not technically home, just another place where my heart is filled and my soul finds rest. This was my third spring break in Brenton, West Virginia and my first time as a trip leader. Each trip has been wonderful, difficult, adventurous, joyful, and unsettling in their own unique ways and this past week was certainly no exception. Since I’m not really sure where to start or how to explain it, I will simply start from the beginning but I apologize in advance as my jumbled brain tries to get this all out.
[Saturday] 5:20am my alarm started to ring but I had already had my eyes open for a few minutes. I had a hard time falling asleep the night before because I was so excited that the day was finally coming. We were finally packing up the vans and heading to West Virginia (well technically Kentucky for our first night, but whatever.) I dashed around the apartment gathering my things and triple checking that I had everything I needed for the week. Once I was sure that I was good to go I saddled myself up with all of my bags and made my way down the stairs and out to the cars. As soon as the last bag was stacked up into the van we loaded up and rolled out. I was driving the big van, and Jessica W. was driving the mini van. Despite my excitement, it didn’t feel real yet so I just kept my eyes on the road and my mind on my coffee. We drove for hours and switched drivers a few times before arriving in Lexington, KY at the University of Kentucky. We were extremely early but were still graciously greeted by Shalisha who ended up being our tour guide for all things Lexington. She took us on a walking tour of the city and ended at an adorable coffee shop. We ended the evening with a stroll back to the Wesley House where we were staying. We had a debriefing, worshiped together, and then turned in early. Losing two hours due to daylight savings AND the crossing of a time zone was a tough adjustment.
[Sunday] Waking up, it finally started to feel like it was happening. We loaded up as quickly as possible and got back on the road. It was necessary to take a detour to the Natural Bridge State Park in Slade, Kentucky for a beautiful, overcast hike. We spent a few hours enjoying the company of one another and the nature surrounding us. I think it was good preparation for the week to come. As we officially crossed into West Virginia later that day we blasted “Country Roads” by John Denver through the speakers and sang along as best as we could. I was absolutely giddy. I say this often about many different places, but it felt like coming home. When we arrived to Appalachia Service Project (ASP) in Brenton, West Virginia I leapt out of the car and took in a deep breath. We were there. After settling in I was pulled aside by an ASP staff member named Sarah. She told me that they would be taking one or our two groups out to see their work site before dinner that evening and was wondering which leader I wanted to send. I stupidly asked her if either of our assigned sites had a puppy (priorities, am I right?) and she told me that the one we would see that night did. I immediately volunteered to be the leader going out to that site. Although it was a stupid question, it changed the course of the entire week. My ASP staff contact person, Becca, myself, and Jessica W. got into a van and headed out to the work site so that we could meet the family, understand how to get there, and see the space we would be working in that week. It was a relatively short drive from the center.When we arrived at the home we met Angela and Stephanie. They are partners and they live together.They were kind and welcoming from the moment I met them and I was so excited to go back the next day to start working on their home.
[Monday] I roused myself out of bed at 6:05am every morning. I knew that it would be for the benefit of my team members and myself if I had time each morning to sit with my coffee, journal, and Jesus to prepare for the day. I’m not exactly a morning person. Around 6:45am a few others would trickle into the dining room and join me, by 7:15am it would be time for breakfast and everyone was there. By then I almost always felt ready to take on the day. On Monday morning I ate breakfast quickly and began to gather all of the materials that my work crew would need for the day. My work crew consisted of me, Kennedy, Wilson, Jessica K., Justin, and Gigi. As they were also running around and getting ready, I found out that a Helping Hand named Peter would also be joining our work crew for the week. The seven of us got into the van and I drove over to Stephanie & Angela’s house. When we got there Stephanie came out to greet us and meet the rest of the team. We also got to meet Bella and Floppy, their dogs. After some brief chatting and introductions we got to work. We spent the entire morning finishing up a drainage ditch in the front yard which the previous group had not completed. Basically, we spent the whole morning shoveling rocks into holes. Needless to say, I feel much stronger now than I did last week. Stephanie came out and joined us for lunch and it was mostly just casual “getting to know you” conversation. Pleasant, but not necessarily anything super special. The second half of our work day was spent with the beginnings of a porch. On the first day we ran into a few snags. SO much groundwater filled our post holes, we hit a pipe, and we had a hard time getting our posts to stand level in the thick mud. Despite all that, it was a wonderful day and we had nothing but glowing reviews for the rest of our team at debrief that night. There also may or may not have been a trip made to Dairy Queen where all 13 of us proceeded to get ice cream and share a few laughs.
[Tuesday] Jessica W. decided to come along with us to our work site on Tuesday. It was great to have another set of hands to help out with the porch. We continued to run into quite a few problems, but with the help of Peter, Becca, and rarely me, we got it figured out. Stephanie came to sit with us at lunch again and this time let us into her life on a more personal level. She told us so many pieces of her story. Some painful, some joyful, but all significant. We took an hour and a half for lunch. The conversation was too good to stop and we were waiting for some parts to arrive anyways. It was hard to force ourselves to go back to work after such a lovely lunch, but of course we did anyway. The end of the work day was a little frustrating. We didn’t quite make it to our goal stopping point as a result of little snags we hit along the way. The team was exhausted and there just wasn’t much we could do so we called it a day and headed back to the center. The local historian, Jim Cook came to the center that evening to show us some sweet artifacts and to share more in depth about the region. It was a valuable experience for our team. At debrief, my work crew simply could not stop gushing about Stephanie and her willingness to be open with us. I think most others were sick of hearing our voices by the end. A group from UMass came to join us for debrief and worship and they continued to join us for the rest of the week.
[Wednesday] I don’t know why, but Wednesday always seems to be a difficult day. Jessica W. came along with our crew again and our morning was super productive. We were able to make a lot of progress on the porch despite a few minor setbacks, but mostly we were all looking forward to lunch. However, we did take a little break before lunch to take a walk together. Stephanie took us up behind her home where Angela’s father’s sawmill was. He had passed away and the sawmill had been sitting unused for awhile. It was so cool, but what really blew me away was Stephanie. As she showed us the mill, she told us all about Angela’s father. She spoke so highly of him. It lead me to believe that they had a great relationship but toward the end she mentioned that he really didn’t like her. He felt that she had “turned his daughter queer” which obviously was not true. I lost my breath for a second when she said that. In that moment I knew that Stephanie was one of the most Christ-like people I had ever met despite the fact that she felt entirely unwelcome in the church. It takes a big heart, and a deep relationship with Jesus to talk about someone who despised you with nothing but love and respect. It certainly had me evaluating my own relationships. We took another hour and a half for lunch. Spending time with Stephanie had routinely become the highlight of the day. We continued to have deep and meaningful conversation with her, but were then able to share bits of our own stories with her as well. It was again, so difficult to break away from the conversation and get back to work.
Jessica W. and Kennedy sat and talked with Stephanie a little longer while the rest of us went back to work on the porch which made my heart happy. The relational ministry is the whole reason that I love ASP so much. We were able to finish the porch and I even had the honor of putting the final screws in. It was a really emotional moment for me to see Stephanie and her family standing on the porch beaming with pride. We laughed, took lots of pictures, and rode around the yard on quads to celebrate. I was so incredibly proud of each and every one of my crew members for a job well done, but not at the expense of the relationship we built with Steph. It was obviously necessary to get a pre-dinner Dairy Queen treat so that we could debrief as a small work crew. It was such a good day, but such an overwhelming day. There were so many heavy moments as we heard more and more of Stephanie’s story, but so many light and joyful moments as we laughed and played together. I suppose that’s the paradox of true relationship with one another, right?
[Thursday] I was really eager to get back to Angela & Stephanie’s in order to get the ball rolling on the next project. We left the center 30 minutes earlier than usual so clearly I wasn’t the only person who was anxious to get back. Just as we had done every other morning, we arrived and greeted Steph before getting to work on the next thing. Angela was also home because she had the day off of work so it was a great opportunity to spend some time with her as well. We spent the morning putting the final touches on the drainage ditch (aka shoveling more rocks). We managed to finish the ditch off long before lunch, so we moved onto the front porch. It was already built however it had no hand railings to protect you from falling off of it. As we went we discovered that it would also be necessary to replace the steps. Ang and Steph had gone out for awhile and when they came back there were no longer any front steps which came as a bit of a surprise. When I explained to them that we decided to go ahead and replace the steps while we were at it, Stephanie drew me into a big hug. It was a moment I will cherish. Lunch was a bit shorter than it had been in the days preceding it, but even so we enjoyed our time with Steph and Angela. After lunch we continued to make great progress on the porch. Mid-Afternoon Jessica W. came over from the other work site to say hi to Ang and Steph. She walked right into their home and sat down with them which made my heart so full. After awhile, I went in and joined them since my work crew was doing so well. That was when Jessica told me I would be going to visit Connie, the homeowner I worked for last year. My knees got a little weak and I felt some tears welling up in my eyes. My team packed up and left rather quickly that day so that I could get back to the center.
As promised, Jason, Alison, and I hopped in the car and made our way over to Connie’s house. I was a strange mix of excited and nervous and I could feel those two things mixing in my stomach, but then again maybe I was just a little car sick. As we pulled into the driveway I immediately spotted one of the puppies I had fallen in love with last year. She was now almost a full grown, adult dog. After a brief reunion with the pup we made our way to the front door. I knocked and waited a few moments with no response. Jason then knocked and we waited some more. My heart dropped. It seemed like she wasn’t home. Right as we were about to give up the door began to open but I was met with another shock. Connie wasn’t the one who answered the door. It was her daughter in law who informed us that Connie had moved to the trailer next door. We walked next door and knocked again and were greeted by Connie’s familiar voice. As we entered the home I immediately realized that this visit wouldn’t be quite what I expected. Connie shared with us that a few months back, her father had passed away. She had been living with him and caring for him for the last five years and the loss hit her very hard. She couldn’t stand the thought of living in the home they shared without him which was why she and her husband moved. Connie also opened up and shared that financially she wasn’t doing well and it had been a difficult year. I felt my heart shatter slowly but surely throughout the visit. I had allowed myself to hold an idealized picture of what Connie’s life was like throughout the past year just to have reality come in and kick that to the curb. The car ride home was difficult as we tried to process together.
During debrief that night I was still feeling pretty raw and so I chose not to share much, but rather just to listen. It was refreshing to hear all of the happy moments my team had to share. Worship was the rest my soul was looking for in that moment. I gladly went to bed a little early after such a long day.
[Friday] The last work day is always the hardest. I was eager to get back and finish the porch, and to see Steph and Ang, but was so unprepared for the impending goodbyes at the end of the day. Jessica W. joined us for the full day again. Our work moseyed along much slower today, mostly because there wasn’t much left to do, but also because we were just having too much fun together. It kept my mind off the end of the day which was nice. We took another long lunch with Steph, but we ate up at the old sawmill which was a nice change of pace. We finished the porch off shortly after lunch and even had Stephanie do the honors of putting the last two screws in. We again got to go through the whole joyful process of showing off the porch, taking pictures (maybe a few selfies too,) and goofing off. Stephanie informed us that Angela would be bringing home celebratory pizzas for us at 4:30pm so we decided to hike the mountain across the street from their home in the meantime. It was a gorgeous (STEEP) hike and when we arrived at the top we each went to our own spots and spent the time in silence soaking in the nature, the moment, and the week as a whole. It was such a necessary primer for the emotional goodbyes.
When we got back to the home we hung out on the porch chatting with Stephanie until Angela arrived home. Stephanie pulled out pictures of her when she was pregnant, school pictures, and pictures of her grand babies. When Ang got home we all shared dinner and stories together on the porch and it was all lovely, but eventually it was time to go. We presented Ang and Steph with a small token of our appreciation and a card that we had all signed. We each expressed our gratitude for the week that we shared with them, and for their willingness to truly do life with us. It wasn’t long before almost all of us were crying. We prayed with them and hugged and cried some more. Steph and Ang thanked us for loving them right where they are at and for not expecting anything else and it was a profound moment for my team to realize that maybe we were able to show them that not all Christians are judgmental, or hateful and it made all of the difficult moments worthwhile. We all hugged again and as I climbed up into the car I could not get the tears to stop flowing. Somehow over the course of the week, I had grown to love these two women as family and by the grace of God they felt the same. It was so difficult to leave not knowing if we would ever have the privilege to see them again. Most of my crew cried the whole way back to the center. I didn’t make much of an effort to pull it together before going to dinner and luckily I was met with warm embraces.
Debrief that night was so incredibly raw. Each of us had so much to process. Most of my crew chose not to share because the emotions were still too overwhelming. As I was reflecting I was able to realize how incredibly healing the week had been for me. I learned so much from each and every person on my team, from Ang and Steph, and from the ASP staff. I was able to sit in the presence of God in new and exciting ways, and also in old familiar ways. We let worship go on for an extra long time. Words were too hard so it seemed most appropriate to just approach the throne together instead. We all stayed up way too late that night like little children at a sleepover, giggling, sharing stories, and pretending that it wasn’t our last night.
[Saturday] 6am my alarm began to go off. I tried to go through all of the motions of a normal morning but there was so much to do in preparation for our departure. We loaded up the vans, but then lingered around the center a little longer. The ASP staff and Peter all woke up early to say our goodbyes. We made sure to take many pictures and really soak in our final moments at ASP. Goodbyes are the worst. Getting everyone in the vans and turning the key in the ignition felt like a dream. Actually, the entire 12hr car ride felt entirely surreal. We got back to North Park around 5pm and even as I said goodbye to my team and made my way up to my apartment it felt like it wasn’t happening. I sat and talked with my roommate, Mary for hours about the trip and even then I couldn’t get everything out to her. There is just so much. I went to bed as early as possible. Exhausted from the long drive, and weighed down by all of the emotions.
3500 words later and this still doesn’t even come close to describing my week in full or even in part. It’s hard to sum up, but rest assured it was absolutely incredible. I don’t know when I’ll be back in West Virginia, but I have a strange peace that I will most certainly be back one day. Today has been a day to lounge around the apartment, adjust back into city life, and begin to process all that has happened. So West Virginia and ASP–this is not goodbye, just “see you later.”