Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Great Thanksgiving: An Appalachia Service Project Reflection

Presbury United Methodist Church has partnered with the Norrisville Charge United Methodist Churches the last three years to take youth to serve through the Appalachia Service Project. This is my reflection on this year's trip and a slightly edited version is posted on the ASP blog. I am so grateful for their willingness to break the silence around miscarriage and posting this reflection.

I am taking selfies with my cousins, who are both a foot taller than me even though they are only 14 and 16. We are wearing the same t-shirt that says, "Of course I'm awesome: I'm a Sullivan." The other adult leaders are shaking their heads at us, especially me as I scout for signs that say, "Sullivan County, Tennessee," so my cousins and I can get pictures together in our shirts under the sign. Before we left, people in the congregation asked me if I paid off Appalachia Service Project to get us placed in Sullivan County for our annual mission trip. We are all laughing despite our (at least the adults') exhaustion, and excited for the ways in which we will experience God on this mission trip. Only, every once in a while, I have this thought like a needle shoved in my brain: I should not be here.

When we started planning this trip back in January, I dodged the question of whether or not I would be an adult leader this year. "The kids would love for you to go," they would say. "Didn't you have fun last year?" "We need another woman to go." I would smile and mumble something about empowering laity and an already planned vacation, all the while ready to burst with news of my joy. After over a year of emptiness, I was finally pregnant. When the kids went on the mission trip, I would be seven months along, too big and miserable to handle power tools or deal with youth drama.

I never got to share the news. I had a miscarriage just a few days before a team meeting.

I knew I had to keep living my life, so when they started looking again for more adult leaders, I agreed, encouraging them to find another just in case I got pregnant right away. But I didn't. Even the week before we left on the trip, I was debating if I should take a pregnancy test before I go and risk having two soul crushing days that cycle (the day of the negative test and the day of the start of my period) or risk not bringing a bag of supplies for a miscarriage. Did you catch that? I am not afraid of being pregnant on a mission trip; I am afraid of being pregnant and unprepared for a miscarriage, no Depends, no heating pad, no internet to stream Firefly or Buffy the Vampire for comfort. But I never had to take a pregnancy test. I was not pregnant.

And now here I am, in Sullivan County, Tennessee, the words I should not be here pressing deeper into my skull. I try to distract myself. We have internet here--- I turn to Instagram for cute Boxer puppy pictures but the first picture that pops up is my sister. In it she sports a bikini and holds her thirteen month old son awkwardly because of her huge pregnant belly. She conceived the same month I miscarried. So I try to shake the jealousy out of my head; I go to get to know some of the other adult leaders. "Do you have any children?" they ask. The words, "I don't have any living children," form on my tongue but all I say is no, and then I change the subject. I should not be here, I rage silently.

It is time for dinner, so I slink down the wondering how I can get away (from myself), and there on the wall, right where my eyes naturally rest as I come to the landing and turn to walk down to the cafeteria, is a sign. The staffers for Appalachia Service Project centers usually cover the walls with bible verses and prayers and quotations by Tex Evans, but in the Sullivan County Center I have not noticed any. Except this one.

What are you THANKFUL for today?

This sign is my lifeline all week. Sometimes when the words I should not be here get so loud I can feel the rhythm stronger than my own heartbeat, I walk down the stairs on purpose, just to come face to face with a simple question on a piece of printer paper taped to a wall. Yes, my grief is unbounded. Yes, my anger and jealousy burn within me. But there is goodness all around. And sometimes, the words I am thankful begin to beat within me more powerfully than I should not be here

I am thankful for the family we are working with on this service trip. She is a widow and a grieving mother too. Her home is so torn up by work crews that she is living with a friend. But she still comes up the mountain daily to talk with us, and brings us stories and cold water and Mountain Dew cake.

I am thankful for kids who are willing to try something so different, who will take a week away from air conditioning and Pokemon-Go (ok, we did still play a little Pokemon-Go) and Netflix to do adult labor working on houses. I am thankful for adult leaders who use what precious little vacation time they have to spend time with moody, sweaty teenagers.

I am thankful for the afternoon that the five moody, sweaty, teenagers on my team sit in the back room of the trailer we are supposed to be working on laughing instead of spackling. They range in age from barely 14 to almost 18: some are queer, some emo, some nerds, some have no idea where they fit in yet, some go to private schools and some are trying not to fail out of public schools. Social convention tells us that these kinds of kids are too different to be friends. And yet. Yet they are laughing with one another, and my co-leader and I leave them to bond while we take up the spackling instead.

I am thankful for the car-ride to pick up tampons in the middle of the picnic with two teenagers and one other adult leader. We share stories about the homeowners from our different teams, divulge our frustrations with the way the world works, figure out how to save said world (if anyone would only listen to us), and then the other adult leader and I reveal to one another our deep love for Ewan McGregor. (She actually got to breathe the same air as him maybe when her family visited Scotland once. #Swoon.) Maybe that last part is not as God-breathed as the rest of our conversation, but I am still thankful for it.

I am thankful for that moment when a youth on my team who does not believe in God but whose parents make her go on the trip anyway pulls me to the side to remind me that we need to pray for our homeowner before her surgery the next day. And for when I ask another youth to lead us in that prayer, and she does, beautifully. I know this is the first time she has ever prayed out loud, and I know she thinks there's no place for a tattooed, screamo-loving teenager in church. (There is.) Her words are simple, clear, compassionate. And I shiver from the presence of the Spirit.

I am thankful for ice cream, which we pursue nightly after a long hot day's work. But more than that, I am thankful for the conversations we have over ice cream, for discussions of college plans, for honesty about relationships with parents, and for more story swapping about the relationships we are building with our homeowners.

I am thankful for the picture my spouse sends me of him and the dog all cuddled up in bed together, missing me.

I am thankful that I brought a wooden chalice and paten, a gift to me by my mother on my ordination. After we have washed off the muck from our last day on site painting or roofing or putting on siding, we come together in in the glare of the setting sun to recognize Jesus in stories we share and in the breaking of the bread.

I am thankful that I have some time to read, and that the book I read has a chapter about jealousy in which the author shares some lines by a Lakota Sioux: "Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky."

What are you thankful for today? I am thankful for a simple, flimsy piece of paper taped unceremoniously to a wall with six little words typed out on it. For these words remind me that all the while I miss my baby, I am being carried on great winds across the sky.

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