For the 28 youth and six adults who traveled to Atlanta this past week, it probably feels like it’s been a month, because so much has happened, but it was just last Sunday, that as a congregation, you prayed over us as we prepared to load into four vans and head to Atlanta to serve Christ and make the world look more like the world Jesus shows us.
What was supposed to be an eight hour trip to the city became twelve-plus hours because we were having such a good time visiting at our lunch and dinner stops, but we finally made it to First Iconum Baptist Church on Moreland Avenue in Southeast Atlanta, which was to be our home away from home.
Each morning of this past week, after breakfast and a time of prayer and devotions, we split up into work crews and were dispersed into the city alongside another youth group from Petersburg, Illinois, who was about our size, and with whom we shared the experience.
And our service sites were a great mix of Mary and Martha. There were sites that were mostly hard physical work and sites that were mostly visiting with people and building relationships, and the wonderful thing is that it seemed like everyone got to experience some of both.
We volunteered with a couple community gardens, and with the temperatures pushing a hundred every day it certainly qualified as hard work.
We worked in a furniture bank, building prefabricated end-tables, coffee tables, and desks.
Some of us worked with an agency called Open Hands, others with Meals on Wheels, both of which gave our youth a chance to prepare and deliver food, and visit people who were in need of a meal and a friendly conversation.
Several groups volunteered in elder care rehab facilities: singing, exercising, dancing, making art projects, and visiting with residents.
One group spent each day with the YouthWork’s Kids Club – playing with and befriending the children in the neighborhoods in and around Southeast Atlanta.
The theme for the week was FIRST LOVE, and we immersed ourselves in the Prodigal Son story; a story, which like the story of Mary and Martha, features a pair of fighting siblings.
We were invited to remember that we love because God has first loved us.
Each day we would split into work crews, work at our sites until about 3pm, and then return to the church to get cleaned up for supper. We ended each day with a fun outing in the community, worship, and a time to think about and share stories from the day.
Several of our young men in the group were impressed by and told stories about a man named Karinga, who was in charge of and ran the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm. The five acre farm is located in the heart of a troubled neighborhood, which is a food desert: a place in which residents do not have access to fresh, affordable, healthy food; where there is no grocery store nearby and residents otherwise would have to shop at convenience stores. Karinga’s love of God’s earth, deep knowledge of varied farming techniques, and seeming ability to work and talk and laugh all day without ever stopping to take a break, while we drifted to the water cooler, was impressive. His work of making fresh fruits and vegetables accessible has made the community healthier.
Several groups visited the A.G. Rhodes Elder Care Facility, and worked with John, who is a music therapist. He brings his guitar and plays the old songs the residents remember from their youth, taking requests and calling them by name. John had the residents sit in a large circle around the room and then invited the youth to stand in the middle, also in a circle, facing out towards the residents, so they could look at one another and interact. We played “I’ve been working on the railroad,” as requested by a woman, he later he told us, whose father had worked for the railroad, and she smiled from ear to ear through the whole song. Later, as we sang “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” it was as if we were witnessing a foretaste of the kingdom to come. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a dim vision of God’s intentions for us, and this was one of those moments. In the room, John played his guitar, many of the residents were beating drums and tambourines, one woman was singing into the mic, our youth were dancing, and residents were getting up to dance along too. All of sudden children appeared, I’m not sure who they were, but there were people of all ages, young and old, men and women, black and white, all dancing and singing together. It was as if we could see in this picture what God would have the world look like, and as a gift, we were a part of it.
One of our young women on the trip worked with the Kids Club each day in Atlanta. On the first day she met KJ, a four year old who wouldn’t engage with or interact with the group and who wouldn’t talk with the volunteers. This young lady got a box of juice for KJ, and from then on they were inseparable. He had a wonderful week. When they went to the park on the last day, he said he wanted to pick flowers for everyone, but there weren’t any flowers – only grass and shrubs, so he picked grass and gave it to our group. KJ – four years old, now – shared with the group about his faith in Jesus and on the last afternoon asked, “Can you please stay?”
Of course, it was hard to look at KJ and tell him that we couldn’t stay, but the institutions and agencies and the people whose passion is the engine of their good work do stay in Atlanta: Karinga and John and many, many more people.
We were blessed to have had the opportunity to serve. One young woman in our group put it this way: “Going to serve like that, for me is a chance to take the focus off of myself and to love others.”
And that’s it. In all our service, we think we are going to give and we find that we receive. We think that we are going to change and we are changed. We think that we are going to bless, but we are the ones who receive the blessing.
Pastor Chad, from Urban Recipe, a co-op on Grant Street told us, somewhat shockingly, “we don’t need you here.” His point was they have an on-going, well-oiled system that works to distribute millions of pounds of food a year. It was a reminder to us that even more than the work we would do, to be intentional about building relationships with the people we were meeting and to savor the brief moment we had with them.
Pastor Chad was suggesting we act like Mary, not Martha: to know that the work we are called to is relationship, and to love, and to see Christ in others. To be attentive that our business doesn’t take precedent over making time to simply BE – to be with one another, to be with the Lord, because that is the blessing.
On the last night in Atlanta, we were invited to participate in a footwashing. The YouthWorks staff washed the feet of our Epiphany adult leaders and then we, as adult leaders washed the feet of our youth. It was a special moment, as youth gathered around one another. After each youth had their feet washed, we would gather around them and all lay hands on them as an adult prayed for them.
One young woman in our group who is headed off to college in a very few months said, “Epiphany has meant so much to me and I realized in that moment that this night was not the end of my time with Epiphany, but it was the end of my time as a youth. It was a conclusion. And I hope and pray that for a community like Epiphany while I am away at school.”
On behalf of myself and Tyler, Emily, Mark, Dan, and Tatiana, I want to thank you.
We were so proud of our youth, and their service, and their ability to converse with people from all walks of life – old and young, and particularly people who have had a hard go in life, people who have been hurt by life and for whom a kind conversation and genuine respect are so valuable.
On behalf of the Epiphany Youth Group, I want to give you thanks as a congregation.
These young men and women are able to go to Atlanta and serve, able to serve here in Richmond with such passion and purpose, and they share love…because they have first been loved, by this congregation…they have grown up witnessing and experiencing the love of Christ here, in the word, at the table, in this community.
So thank you for your prayers and for your love. Thank you for giving us so many opportunities to serve here at Epiphany, and cultivating in our youth a love of Jesus and a love of service in his name.
Thank you for letting us represent you in Atlanta and for being excited to hear many, many more stories of our adventures this past week.