NOT YOUR MOMMA’S MISSION TRIP!
A reflection on our 2016 Youth Mission Trip to Louisville, KY…
For three days I have been back from the most insane experience I’ve had in youth ministry, and I’m still processing. Our group spent a week with UrbanSpirit (UrbanSpirit.org) participating in a poverty simulation in the poorest sections of Louisville, KY, where we were about as homeless as we could have been without actually being homeless.
We started with very little money and food and carried with us our belongings everywhere we went, which included many miles long walks in the Louisville heat to places the temp agency told us there was work. Sometimes the directions were wrong and we’d arrive late and have our pay docked, other times we’d arrive to find that in actuality, there was no work that day.
We spent the week in “families,” with each family having a different scenario. One family, a single mother of three, had a baby (doll) during the week that cried at various times throughout the night. This family needed to pay for daycare if mom was going to earn enough for the family to eat, which felt like an impossible balance for them. Two families had their stuff stolen (one of those families was mine), which meant we slept even without a sleeping bag and pillow for a time. Another family had a child get sick and require medical care, which put them in so much debt that they couldn’t afford food.
Each family dealt with food insecurity as we spent our days rationing crackers and peanut butter and some cereal. In an effort to be sure we were unable to connect to our real, comfortable lives, we had no phones or cameras. We were hungry, tired, disconnected, and at times miserably frustrated. There were tears shed, voices raised in anger, and on multiple occasions many in the group expressed the desire for us to simply go home.
The point was made, poverty sucks. For us it was only one week, but for the millions of people who live in poverty each day with no end in sight, it’s an atrocity.
Through this experience our group learned more than we could have imagined as we experienced the reality of what those living in poverty face – insurmountable odds. Sure, there is a story here and a story there about someone climbing out of poverty, but for most people it is an endless cycle, a hamster wheel of setbacks and roadblocks. Any preconceived negative stereotypes our group had – that those who live in poverty are “lazy” or don’t work hard enough – were challenged, broken, and shattered as we worked our butts off and got nowhere.
The leaders of UrbanSpirit led our group through many difficult and challenging conversations during the week about the ways in which the wealthy create poverty and those in poverty create wealth. One example, Wal Mart pays their employees so little that their workers are forced to lean on government subsidies. Meanwhile, 6 members of the Walton Family are richer than more than half of the US population put together. This is injustice at its worst, and it is just one example.
We also talked about the ways in which the minimum wage is impossible to live on, and we experienced this first hand in the simulation. Finally, we discussed the ways in which generations upon generations of racism in our country – which is baked into each one of us in both conscious and unconscious ways – makes it much more difficult for people of color to find their way out of poverty.
At the end of our week, after living and learning about these issues, the leaders of UrbanSpirit gave our group two hours to create our very own “manifesto,” or statement of commitment. Our teens wrote our manifesto with very little input from the adults on the trip (see the photo of the manifesto below).
Of course, when a group spends this much time together, in this kind of way, fun moments rise to the surface. We had quite a few of them, times of laughter amidst the frustrations that kept us going. Our group returned extremely tight.
For me, and I’m hearing this from others as well, re-entering my normal life has been down right strange. The reason I imagine is because we are not the same as we were when we left, we see and understand the world differently now.
Many things became clear for us last week, not the least of which is the fact that it will not be enough for us to come back grateful for what we have. As Deb, the leader of UrbanSpirit said, gratefulness doesn’t end poverty. Instead, we must use any gratefulness to be empowered to change the world for those who continue in the margins.
I pray that out of this experience our youth group and church might continue to do the many generous acts that we do for the poor, but that we might also find more ways to promote equality and justice to end poverty in the first place. May we do this for the sake of all of those for whom the simulation did not end this past Saturday morning.
I am so very proud of our fabulous group of youth who participated in this trip (they are beyond amazing), their parents who encouraged them, and our adult leaders, including our Sr. Pastor, George Harris, for making this experience incredible. If you want to learn more, or take your church, go to UrbanSpirit.org. Also, thank you to Josh Roberts and his family for hosting us on “the hill” on our return home, which is always the best way to close a mission trip.