Mission Trips: Brutal and Beautiful

By James K. Wellman, Jr.

photo courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt via C.C. license at FlickrAs anyone knows who does it, leading youth group mission trips is brutal and beautiful. This past summer, our church partnered with Group Workcamps, an evangelical organization that creates home repair experiences across the country, to plan our mission trip. I chose it in part because they are so well organized; they do excellent site preparation and they create good relationships with local officials, making sure the most deserving residents are chosen and the right materials are provided. They also create programs that are fun for young people and provocative for faith. Their theology is evangelical and it gives my youth, who attend a moderately progressive mainline Presbyterian church, a taste of what the "other side" does in American Christianity.

Our youth group of twenty-two adults and youth joined with 200 others to do home repair on nearly forty homes of Navajo Nation families in Red Mesa, Arizona. Red Mesa is in the northern most point of Arizona, so the area is remote. Most of the "homes" of the Navajo people are trailers -- few have running water or electricity, most are very poor condition.

The region is magnificent; the red earth against the azure sky is gives a stunning contrast. The old shores of a Salt Lake Sea surround the desert -- so one literally walks at the bottom of what was a once great body of water. There is little water now, however, except for the San Juan River. One day, we took the kids to wade in it -- a refreshing dip in earth-softened water. Our swimming hole sat under a great rock crag; in one of the ledges there was a working hut. Our friend and guide, Steve Whitehorse, said it was a Navajo shelter.

Steve, a Utah resident and Navajo himself, was part of a church from Salt Lake City; he had come with some of his youth to participate in the mission. We talked over dinner about the Navajo; his participation in the Native American Church; the relationship of Christianity to the Navajo traditions; the experience of white contact, and the devastation to Native cultures -- it made my American religious scholarly heart sing. Steve felt that the Native American Church and its sacramental use of peyote were aligned with the Christian religion; in both traditions, believers sought the one God and Jesus was the way. He was aware that not everyone believed in this overlap, whether evangelicals or Navajo traditionalists.

As to the actual home repair work, we each were assigned to various home repair sites; some of us put on new metal roofs. Our group built two new porches and put on a new apron for our resident's trailer to keep out the dogs and wind. Our resident was not happy with the size of the first porch, so I lobbied hard to get more wood for the second; we were able to build the second porch four feet longer. Navajo culture is matriarchal and that gender structure was clear from who ran the show at their homes: the women were in charge. The Navajo men seemed passive and from the local papers, in trouble. The lead story in the papers reported on the DUI arrests --six; car accidents due to alcohol -- eight; and deaths due to drinking -- four. This is an epidemic, familiar to many Native cultures in North America. One can see that there is little work for men to do and they seem lost. None of the men helped us on the home repair, while the young women chipped in, hammered nails, painted, and talked with us.

By the end of the week we had made a huge difference on the homes. We also delivered nearly ten boxes of various non-perishable foods to our family; we helped them get firewood, which, as many said, was as precious as money. The tools that we had brought and bought for the mission trip were also given to the residents. Many residents showed their gratitude to our groups with trinkets and small gifts. The grandmother in our family cooked us Fry Bread that melted in our mouths. We felt like we were at a feast. It was a menagerie of sorts, but a strangely beautiful one, with Navajo families gathered, mostly Anglo kids sitting around, and animals everywhere, all seated under a canopy made of dark plastic to shade us from the sun; the space was warm and filled with bread and Gatorade, a motley sort of holy communion.

Our kids dived into serving the Navajo; they loved playing with the children and watching how their handiwork renewed the homes. Some said, "It feels like my life has a purpose, what will I do with the rest of my summer?" For me, as a leader, it was poignant to watch kids actively live out their faith. I think spiritual growth is fostered in times when service is no longer abstract; real need is so close and youth can do something to help. They also pushed themselves beyond what they thought they could do. It was in the midst of this we also learned to support each other, and to see caring, as the body of Christ, as important as the next breath. God was as close as a little Navajo girl; God was as real as having a friend say, "Good job." Many commented on how wonderful the whole event was and also said, "The youth group feels like my family."

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