On Sunday, June 21, a crew of youth and adults from Sea Island loaded up their suitcases and sleeping bags and hit the road for Charleston, SC to participate in a mission trip called “Week of Hope.” Just three days earlier, I learned how much hope Charleston needed during the week we would be there, and for many weeks after. Yet our route to Charleston was anything but direct, and I believe God had a hand in bringing us there.
Originally, we had blocked that week off for a trip to Camden, SC for a Salkehatchie mission trip. Our team was scheduled to join other youth from around the region to work on construction and maintenance crews. Salkehatchie instituted a new registration system this year, and it proved extremely challenging to get our group registered. Other complicating factors came into play, and it led some of the youth ministry leaders to wonder if it might be time to explore other options for a summer youth mission trip. We stumbled upon the “Week of Hope” on a website, and the details looked too good to be true. The dates were the same as Salkehatchie, and the cost was comparable. Best of all, any youth who wanted to go would be accommodated, registration was a breeze, and Charleston was a lot closer than Camden! With less than a month before the trip, though, we prayed they would have openings.
When I called the next day, I was told that due to a cancellation they had enough space to accommodate our group. I signed us up, and we were good to go. Everything was on track to ensure we had a great week of mission and service. Obviously, at that time, we had no idea that someone would enter a Charleston church just days before our scheduled trip and murder nine people.
I spoke with the staff person at the Week of Hope host site in Charleston. She assured me that the mission week was still happening, and that none of the groups had canceled in the aftermath of the shooting. What a testament to trusting in God’s mercy and protection! I was delighted, and excited, for our crew to join the other 90 youth and adults who would be spending the week with us in Charleston, and I had no regrets about changing our plans and canceling the trip to Camden.
One main difference between Salkehatchie and Week of Hope really impressed me. While the focus of Salkehatchie is on building structures, the focus of Week of Hope was building relationships. Each day began with a prayer and a common meal. After breakfast, we gathered for morning worship before departing for our sites all around the Charleston area. Many teams went to different nursing homes and retirement facilities in the area, while other teams worked with orphans and at-risk children and youth in group homes. All of our youth went to nursing homes around Charleston, and I had the pleasure of leading one of the teams. Each team consisted of youth from different churches, so the youth were making new friends and building those relationships. Each team also went to the same site every day during the week, which gave us the opportunity to build relationships with the people we were there to serve. I loved watching my team of young, timid, reserved adolescents step up to the challenge of going door-to-door to meet the residents. By the end of the week, the youth on my team would spend the car ride to the nursing home discussing which residents they were going to visit first, and what they wanted to talk to them about. It was a transformative experience.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the trip for me was our visit to Emmanuel AME Church on Tuesday afternoon. We stood on the sidewalk in front of the church with a crowd of diverse people, praying for the families of those who had lost loved ones, for the church, and for the city of Charleston. Visitors left flowers, balloons, pictures, cards, and messages. People stood in front of the church handing out bottles of water to hot, thirsty strangers. We watched. We listened. We talked about violence, and healing, and God. The experience of that visit resonated in me throughout the week, especially as I spoke with several of the residents of the nursing home who expressed sorrow over the hatred that is still so prevalent in our society. These people, mature in their wisdom and experience, could not understand the motivations that lead people to hate one another and to do violence to others. It pained them. It pains us all.
On our last day, I asked all the youth if they would want to come back and do this again. At the beginning of the trip, hardly any of them wanted to work in retirement communities (in fact one youth exclaimed that they would rather do anything than work in a nursing home!), and all of them ended up in nursing homes. The food was good, but not great. The sleeping arrangements were cramped. They had to shower outside in tents. The men’s quarters were robbed. The church where we were staying was struck by lightning while we slept. I fully expected at least a couple of the youth to say, “No thanks, this is not how I want to spend my summer vacation.” Yet every single one of our youth said they wanted to come back. They were excited about it. They talked about who they wanted to invite to come next year. I felt elated.
This Week of Hope was for the residents of Charleston, but it also gave me hope. Hope for the future of our youth. Hope for the future of the church. The youth who gathered for this Week of Hope gave up a week of their summer vacations to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ. Together, they contributed 2,090 hours of service to the Charleston area. They worked. They built relationships. They grew closer to God. It certainly was a week of hope.