I slept on an inflatable mattress last night.
And it’s not one of those deluxe, queen-size, full-height inflatables either. It’s my backpacker’s mattress: 78 inches long and 20 inches wide, hardly enough room to roll over.
And here’s the other thing:
It’s on the floor of a Sunday school classroom in a church in Lake City, South Carolina, where the youth of Richmond’s First Baptist Church have come for their annual mission trip.
We commissioned them at the end of the 8:30 worship service on Sunday morning and sent them out the door with our blessing. They had been on the road roughly four hours when I finished the 11:00 service, went home, had some lunch, finished packing, and loaded my own car. I followed their fumes down Interstate 95 and arrived at the Savannah Grove Free Will Baptist Church in time to hear the last three songs of their evening concert.
But then we had supper.
And what a treat that was, filling my plate with every good thing those sweet Baptists had cooked for us (of their own free will). I watched them bring out the cakes at the end and thought, “They made those for us!” and it looked like most of them had been made from scratch.
We got to bed late and tired Sunday night, slept hard, and woke up early Monday morning ready to go to work. My team (“The Hot Tamales”) worked on a house belonging to a woman who is the primary caregiver for her husband, who suffers from dementia. Carter Bickford, Wil Moore, and I spent an hour or more replacing a toilet and then went outside where we learned that one of our crew, Maddie Carpenter, had stepped on a rotten part of the roof and crashed through, up to mid-thigh. They took her back to the church to check her out but an hour later she was back on the job, a little scraped up but otherwise undaunted. I noticed then that the shirt she was wearing said “No Whining” on the back.
And she wasn’t.
But the rest of us were tempted. It was HOT outside, and especially on the roof where we were scraping off old shingles and roofing felt. Melissa Johnson, our designated safety officer, made sure we came down regularly to re-hydrate and get some rest in the shade. And then somebody brought pizza, and that kept us in the shade a little longer. So, we took turns and played it safe and yet,
I still got bitten by a dog.
The owner’s son had a mean dog chained up in the back yard, some kind of shaggy white mixed-breed who sized us up every time we walked around the corner of the house. She told us the dog would bite, and we were very careful to avoid it, until…I was pulling a tarp full of roof debris back from the side of the house, stepping backward, not thinking, when I accidentally stepped within reach of the dog’s chain.
I heard it rattle too late.
He clamped down hard on the back of my ankle and I really didn’t know what had hit me. I dropped the tarp, whirled around, and backed away. I was afraid to look at first: afraid I would find my pants leg in tatters and my ankle bleeding. But when the pain subsided I took a look, and what I found was that wearing long pants and thick socks and heavy boots had been a good decision, even with all that heat. The dog’s teeth had not broken through the fabric or through my skin, and although the site was bruised and tender, my team of concerned caregivers breathed a sigh of relief to know that we wouldn’t be dealing with a case of rabies on this trip.
It’s been a little less exciting since then, and a whole lot more productive. These youth have been working so hard, so cheerfully, and living up to our theme verse for the week: 1 John 3:18: “Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in truth and action.” They have shown their love for neighbor through the day, and at night they have freshened up, put on matching yellow T-shirts, and sung their love for God in one concert after another. When it’s time for “shout outs” at the end of the day, they shout out their admiration and appreciation for one another and their adult leaders.
I don’t always get to see these kids at their best. Often I see them sitting in church, whispering to each other during the service, trying to stay awake during the sermon. You could get the impression that none of this “stuff” really matters much to them. But then you spend a few days with them: you see them when their character is being tested on the job site; you see them underlining verses in their well-worn Bibles; you see them including someone who might easily be left out. It makes you wonder if the adults who come to church so neatly dressed and pay attention all the way through the sermon would do as well under similar circumstances. And I’m not sure, but I think the way Maddie Carpenter shrugged off her crash through the roof made it easier for me to move past my dog bite. After all, there was work to be done.[i]
Isaiah said, “A little child shall lead them.” These are not little children; they are young people who are well on their way to being young adults. And yet when the author of 1 John says, “Little children, let us not love in word and speech, but in truth and action,” they set an example.
They lead the way.
[i] Although I have to say, our adult leaders and chaperones have been amazing. My hat is off to Ruth Szucs, who took the lead on planning and coordinating this year’s mission trip, and her many, tireless helpers.