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Two weeks ago, a fifteen passenger van full of ten Taylor students rolled back onto campus, blasting Shackles and the Doxology from the stereo as the students channeled a gospel choir in the back seat. They returned from a ten-day mission trip to Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis. What they lacked in size, they made up with laughter, singing and joy. The most asked question of the week was, “Is this everybody?” I am so grateful for my music-loving, mafia-playing, mulch-spreading group who often resembled an indie band more than an Indy team.
Throughout the week, we collectively recognized how much joy each member of the team radiated. Most days, we were exhausted and emotionally drained from weeks of classes and college life. However, united in Christ, we were filled with joy despite our physical and emotional weakness. That joy was life-giving, pouring in and through each member of our team.
In comparison to other trips, our week was not work-heavy, especially since several college groups had visited Shepherd in the weeks prior. As a result, our week became very relationship-heavy. As a one-on-one conversation kind of gal, that was a dream. We had time to rest and live life well with each other. Reflecting back on the week, I realized that my team knew more of my story than many of my friends, just from asking questions and talking over state museum exploring, stir fry cooking and street cleaning.
We didn’t go to Shepherd expecting radical change and certainly didn’t evoke radical change. Shepherd’s ministry is holistic and serves its community well as it has long before we came and long after groups like ours leave. We came to give the leaders a break from some of the smaller tasks, so they could focus their energies on those they serve. One prayer of mine was that my team and I would manifest the love of Christ through our every word and action.
I saw Christ’s love through the community we served with, the staff and volunteers at Shepherd, the teachers and the church congregation, the families and the friends we made and the team with which I served. During the week, we served in different classrooms in Shepherd’s K-5 school. I spent my time in Miss Southerland’s kindergarten class.
Miss Southerland loves her class so well, empowering students by focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. I could tell that the children in Miss Southerland’s class understood that they were known and loved. Throughout the week, staff members such as security guards, administrators and others visited the classroom to invest in the lives of the children — speaking with them, sitting with them and reading to them. The children knew the names of each employee and jumped out of their seats whenever one would visit the class. They acknowledged each employee with the same warmth and joy that they gave their close friends.
All week, we talked about the importance of at least eight to ten significant relationships in the lives of individual children to empower them to break the cycle of poverty. I saw those formative relationships at Shepherd, but also wondered about what would happen when the children would go home, the most formational place of all. I learned the stories of many of the kids on my class throughout the week. Many were heartbreaking.
One kindergartner, Diamond, nestled close to my side all week. I remember hearing a little giggle behind me and feel two arms wrap around my waist in the biggest bear hug Diamond’s five-year-old self could give. She drew me pictures during class and played with my hair during recess. I taught her how to take photos on my camera. (She was a natural).
One morning, Diamond came into class sullen and removed. At recess, I asked her what was wrong. “My sister took the blanket away from me in our bed,” she said, “I couldn’t sleep. I don’t feel good.” My heart sank. There was never a time when I’ve had to worry about being too cold at night to sleep. I have at least three blankets on my bed at all times. The reality of material poverty in my hometown began to sink in. Since Diamond was cold, she could not sleep well. Since she could not sleep well she could not focus in class. Since she could not focus in class she could not learn. Since she could not learn she got into trouble. Since she got into trouble she could not make friends. Since she could not make friends she could not develop needed relationships. She lived in the cycle of poverty.
However, those things are only partially true. Often, Diamond could focus in class, did do well in school, stayed out of trouble and made friends. With many children, this wasn’t the case. What set Diamond apart was that, though she had bad days, she had significant relationships with teachers and staff members at Shepherd. I heard Miss Southerland encourage Diamond when she did well and come alongside her when she did poorly. Diamond was discipled. Where material poverty abounded, spiritual poverty was bankrupt.
The same was true with sweet Annie. The smallest in the class, Annie had the biggest heart. Her teal eyes lit up whenever she grinned (which was almost constantly). She greeted me with a joyous “sit with me,” “come with me,” or “stand by me” each morning. She delighted and was delighted in. As I sat on an Annie-sized chair next to my little friend, I noticed several children at the table jeer at her. I turned to them with a “no thank you friends, let’s say nice words please” and turned back to Annie, expecting tears or anger. I was shocked. Her face was changed. But if possible, she had a bigger smile than ever. Her eyes were bright and her words were, kind. “That’s beautiful!” “Oh, those colors!” “I like that drawing!” Her praises were endless. I can’t say I would’ve had that same reaction. Even now, I’d be hurt. My initial reaction would probably be to walk away to process, not to love the one who hurt me. Annie courageously chose to love others so purely that it was undeniable that her love was Christ’s love.
What a glorious God we serve that He gives no less power or love to the five-year-old as He gives to the fifty year old. Annie so powerfully exhibited Christ’s love that I wanted to love Christ more fully.
As the week progressed, not only did I notice the love of Christ in the lives of the children I met, I saw it pour in and through the lives of those on my team. Friends, it was so incredibly powerful. My heart is so full when I am reminded of God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness shown through the lives of those I met. Often, those occasions lead to rich friendships. This trip laid the foundation for incredible friendships in the years to come.
Our team was tiny, but terrific. Cameron, Clayton, Caleb, Julia, Nicki, Jordan, Paige, Erica, Beth and I grew close over games of Star Wars (and Harry Potter) mafia, slices of Thai pizza and lots of meaningful conversations. One of my favorite portions of each day was our team debrief. There was a captivating vulnerability that existed between the members of our team. There was also a captivating depth. I feel so thankful to have learned and lived with and to keep learning and growing with those friends.
The Lord has shown me new aspects of His character through living life with others in Indy. He has shown me more of the beauty of worship, the beauty of shared passions and the beauty of His perfect love. He is faithful and He is GOOD.