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A Muddy Reflection

Last summer our high school youth group set out on a service trip. Nothing new, right? Hordes of students head out every summer to change another little piece of the world. But we were trying something a little different, and it wasn’t initially embraced by everyone in our group.

Our group encompasses students from two cultures. One is generally white, affluent, and educated in the CRC from birth. The other is generally black, living in poverty, and coming to our church from a variety of church (or churchless) backgrounds. There are a few students who bridge the divide. We wanted to promote group bonding across all those boundaries, and we wanted this experience to be outside of normal life for everyone involved. And we wanted to serve in a way that avoided any sense of paternalism.

We decided to take on a creation care project to get everyone outside, serving together on a project for which they each had equal skills and abilities, and dependent on each other for community. We ended up driving from Michigan to southern Ohio to build a hiking trail that connects the local Buckeye Trail to the National Parks Service North Country Trail, making a small community part of a national trail system.

Our first day on the trail we wondered what exactly we had gotten ourselves into. It was pouring rain, we were squelching through deep mud, and it felt as if the work we were doing would not make any difference. On top of that, when we were ready to leave, a tree had fallen across the entrance to the parking lot, and we were trapped for a couple of hours while someone came with a chainsaw to set us free.

The second day was no better. We chopped down vines and uprooted tiny trees and moved mud around. It felt more like creation destruction than creation care. We leaders wondered if we would even be able to get the kids out on the trail the next day. Fortunately the third day included some chainsaws, which brought new life to a few of our workers. The fourth day was rained out completely. We were grateful that the last workday put us on a lovely piece of trail on a dryer, sunnier day.

If all we had done was work on the trails, this trip might have been a miserable failure. But one of our leaders had put a lot of thought and planning into the events, and it changed everything.

The state park we stayed in was near a few small towns that had been built by mining companies, and the land had been exploited and then abandoned. All the mining boom left behind were small towns with generations of climbing unemployment and deteriorating economies.

Our planner worked with Richard, our contact there. Richard scheduled our days, and he brought in members of the community to talk with our group each evening. First, we heard from Darcy, who works in environmental education. She told us about kids who, because they have little access to resources, rarely get outside to discover and learn about the beautiful natural world around them. Another visitor, Cheryl, gave the local history—along with a few ghost stories—helping students understand what had happened here and how the exploitation of the people and land had impoverished the counties around them.

Andrew came to tell us about the pollution that the mines left behind and what steps the local community is taking to bring chemical balance back to the rivers and streams. Andrew looked over the busload of kids willing to offer themselves to some rather thankless work, and he said to a leader “I never knew Christians cared about the environment.” Somehow, covered in mud, we were reflecting the light of the Creator we serve.

The end result of the education component is that the students began to understand that by working to improve the trails, we were also helping to restore land that is the most valuable resource for the neighboring counties. Trails bring hikers, and hikers bring tourist income, a source of revenue that is desperately needed.

We weren’t the great saviors of the land or the people. We were humbly serving in a very dirty job, a job which we felt we were doing quite ineffectively at times. It wasn’t until we saw some before and after pictures of the trail we cleared that we were able to feel some satisfaction in the job itself.

But the chance to learn from those who were both the victims of injustice and at the same time who were taking steps to right the wrongs helped us to see how our collaboration on the project could have long-term benefits. And it gave the students a deeper understanding of the challenges and gifts of the people and the culture they were serving.

[Image: Flickr user Peter Burgess]


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