I spent last week in the mountains of Appalachia with a group of young people. Not exactly a big trip, since Appalachia is pretty much my back yard. We built porches for families whose back yards are rugged mountain rocks, so the porches give children a place to play and grown ups a place to relax. We hiked through the Red River Gorge, one of the places of primal beauty inviting we humans to do nothing more than wander and walk and realize no matter how cool we are, most of us wouldn't last too long alone in the wilderness. There is no toilet paper, among other things.
We spent part of the time at St. Timothy's Barnes Mountain (Kentucky). It looks more like a storage building than a church, actually. No historic stained glass or tall spire. The Episcopal Shield sign is hand-painted (and peeling). The sacristy is also the kitchen. It's budget isn't the largest, and it's average Sunday attendance is probably about fifty, if that.
I wish more churches in our faith were like St. Timothy's. Computers are along the same wall as the altar so children and adults can use them for entertainment and education in a region where most don't have access to computers or the internet. Families from the region, among the poorest in the United States, gather for meals, for time together, and for worship. The holy space is used almost seven days a week. A chalice and paten sits among tool batteries recharging.
Groups from outside Kentucky come in to serve and learn. While they do construction projects for people in need, they also learn the story of Appalachia. No one gets to come in and think the project is the only building happening that week; they are also the project, learning about the richness of a culture that is deep and lovely, learning that while their income level may be different from ours, they may not live in homes that look like ours, or whatever differences may be tangible, they have a story and something to share and teach us. We all need constant reminding that dignity is an important part of relationship.
Mission is not something that is done well when we bring a sense of hierarchy, that we are going in to "save" someone, to help a person we see as beneath us in some way. Mission is never assaultive, something done to another person or group. Mission and ministry are acts of equality that respect the dignity of all involved. Jesus, being the Son of God and all, could have easily held that I'm-Better-Than-You flag above the people he helped and healed.
He lived and ate and laughed with the people he helped. Probably a clue for us, too, as we are serving our neighbors in need. Remember that they are our neighbors, our equals in the eyes of God. Remember that we have something to learn from them, perhaps about their lives and culture, perhaps about ourselves and our prejudices.
For the many things I love about St. Timothy's, one of my favorite is that they are a constant presence in the community on the mountain. There are no glossy brochures extolling "an awesome mission experience." Just a place where love abides and there is work to do. When the summer mission season is over, St. Timothy's will still be a part of the mountain community. When the snows come, the priest will still be checking on the people in the community. When groups come in for spring break trips, they will hang siding and fix meals and eat with members - as equals. They are a church, ever present in mission and ministry.
They are the church. Period.
If you are interested in learning more about St. Timothy's or becoming part of that community in support and/or mission service, click here.