The best week of my life revisited

Well, I got word this week that my first video of significant length landed on the desk of the founder of Adventures in Missions. And he liked it.
It made its St. Louis debut the Sunday before last. I think it did its job. The subject was my church’s June mission trip to Belle Glade, and a number of the people who were there cried.

“God, send us some signs or something,” prayed the 15-year-old son of Christian author Tim Wesemann, about 30 seconds into the video.

Sign? You got it. A kid named Matthew set off an alarm in room 229 in the church where we spent our first night. So, for what seemed like an eternity, the PA system bellowed, “2-2-9.” And it beeped a lot too.

The minute he prayed and asked for forgiveness, it stopped. Things like that happened a lot that week.

That afternoon, someone looked up Matthew 22:9.

That became our theme. Which reminds me: We need to make t-shirts.

About halfway through, the words, “Wednesday, June 19, 2002: A night to remember” flashed up, simple white letters on a black screen. One of the girls turned back to me. “You got that on tape!?” I nodded. I shot at least three hours of tape that night. She reached back and squeezed my hand.

Let me tell you something about Wednesday night. I don’t know everything that was going through everyone’s minds that night, but by Wednesday, most of our kids (28 in all, I think) had been to the gates of hell and back. They were seeing the desperate situation the people in Belle Glade were living in, and although we’re middle-class white guys and gals from south suburban St. Louis, we live in luxury compared to any of them. We live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and get to eat pretty much anything we want, whenever we want. We don’t have to worry about any of our basic needs.

In Belle Glade, “affordable housing” often means four concrete walls, a concrete floor and roof, some kind of bed, and a 110-volt outlet to plug a hotplate into. A sink is a luxury. A lot of “discount” stores selling low-quality food abound. The food is affordable but not worth the prices they’re forced to pay for it. Blaxploitation at its finest. It’s pretty sickening.

And on Tuesday, there was an incident. One of the kids from our downtown VBS, an eight-year-old, got into a fight with a 13-year-old. The eight-year-old was everyone’s favorite. His was probably the saddest story we’d heard down there. But there was something else about him too. I had limited contact with him (I worked the other VBS) but I can attest to it. He drove me nuts most of the time. But I liked him.

Well, the angel they’d seen that morning flashed his other side. At one point, he had a big rock that he was ready to throw at the 13-year-old–a big-enough rock that if he beaned him with it with enough velocity, it’d do some permanent damage. And the fire in his eyes suggested he was more than willing–if not able–to do just that.

Being an adult, I’ve seen people who have such polar extremes. Not everyone in their early teens has yet–and let’s face it, Oakville, Missouri is pretty sheltered. Seeing two people willing to fight, perhaps to the death, over something that warranted at most a minor scuffle represented a major loss of innocence, especially for the girls.

And the adults from the neighborhood wanted to just let the two kids fight it out and call the police when it ended. One of our adults intervened, broke up the fight, and seperated the two, and a group of people talked to each of them. We didn’t have any more problems of that sort with those two for the rest of the week.

On Wednesday, a couple of teenagers hopped onto the roof where we were holding our other VBS. They threw off a soccer ball and football that had been thrown up there. One of them also picked up a five-pound iron weight, attached to a belt–a crude gang weapon–that was up there. A number of kids were playing in front of the building. He pitched the weight off the top of the roof. He probably wasn’t thinking. And he probably didn’t care, to be honest. The weight came down off the 12-foot roof (he’d probably pitched it up a bit higher, so it may have fallen 18, even 20 feet) and hit a little girl on the head. It bounced off, like a rubber ball. She wasn’t hurt at all. She was scared because she didn’t know what happened, and because our kids were terrified–you know how kids are, they get scared when adults think there’s supposed to be something terribly wrong–but completely unharmed.

Those were just the major events of Tuesday and Wednesday. Enough other things happened both days to fill a book each.

End long digression. Wednesday night was a crescendo. Georgia-based worship leader Joey Nicholson was singing songs and leading us in worship, and his song selections seemed especially poignant that night. Emotions were running high and our kids were exhausted. Our kids were crying, hugging each other, encouraging each other… The total opposite of the all-too-common cold and impersonal church service. At some point, one of the boys in my subgroup–Matthew, he of 2-2-9 and a source of a lot of gray hair for me, prior to that day–walked up to the stage and knelt down to pray. And he stayed there. The rest of the kids stayed pretty much where they were, singing, crying, hugging, consoling, for about two songs. He was still up there alone, praying and it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to budge. Our pastor tried to inconspicuously walk up there. Well, that didn’t exactly work. He walked up, put his hand on his shoulder, and knelt down next to him, talking to him and praying with him. The next thing I knew, all 28 of our kids were up there with them. By the time I knew what was going on, I was one of about five adults still standing. We didn’t waste much time joining them. I ran my handheld camera as I walked up and knelt down, but then I turned it off. What was going on up there was between each of us and God. I wasn’t going to invade that.

We were up there for about an hour, praying for each other.

It was a Lutheran altar call, I guess. No decisions for Christ there–Lutherans believe that’s pointless, because it’s God who empowers us to come to Him–but there were plenty of people talking to God about what their present life looked like and asking God what He wanted them to be doing with it, instead of what they were currently doing with it.

With all due respect to Promise Keepers, 10 PK rallies can’t match the intensity of those few hours that night for the 43-or-so people who were there. Yeah, it was that significant.

That was the self-indulgent memories portion. My gift to those who went, pure and simple. The remaining 19 minutes were about the various ministries we participated in while in Belle Glade. I’ll make no bones about it–it was a propaganda piece. The group that organized our trip had been talking about pulling out of Belle Glade, making our trip the last one there. After seeing so many lives transformed, I wanted to convince them not to do that.

They’ve told us their plans to pull out are history. Mission #1 accomplished.

There were 38 of us who went on the trip, but according to LCMS records, our congregation has 1380 members. Obviously it’s not realistic to send 1,380 people, but a congregation our size can send more than 38. I wanted to make the people who didn’t go jealous, so they’d want to go next year.

Time will tell if that works. Right now it looks like it will.

And I had a fourth objective too. There are lots of churches in Belle Glade. Most of the churches we came in contact with weren’t doing much outreach. I don’t know why that is, and I’m not going to speculate. But here’s what happened: 38 white guys and gals from St. Louis came in for a week. They didn’t have a clue what they were doing. But every ministry we touched caught fire. By the end of the week, every time a group of us walked down the street, someone stopped them. “Where are you from?” And when we’d answer, “St. Louis,” the people would say, “We’ve heard about you.” Then they’d tell us what we’d been doing. Then they’d thank us.

So the question in my mind was, if 38 St. Louisans can come down and spend a week and lots of great things happen, what can the churches that are down there do the other 51 weeks out of the year?

To my knowledge, the video’s been shown at two different churches, one in Belle Glade and one in Wellington, an affluent community a half hour away.

I hope they’re insanely jealous too.

Not that any of that was going through my mind as I watched. No. I was noticing how the audio needed to be normalized, and how a few of the shots desperately needed either to have been shot on a tripod or a healthy dose of post-production image stabilization, and how awful the lighting was and how nice it would have been to be able to do some post-production color correction.

Powerful? Sure. Worthy of winning a Telly? No way.

But the media director at church just told me to win a Telly. She didn’t tell me when. So there’s always next year.

But if we go back next year and I make a video about it and we win a Telly, I’ll betcha the Telly still isn’t the highlight of my year.

2 thoughts on “The best week of my life revisited

  • August 24, 2002 at 3:50 pm
    Permalink

    It sounds like you forged a winner there, Dave!

  • August 25, 2002 at 11:01 pm
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    I’m really glad to see this post. I wanted to “hear” more about your trip. Sure wish I could see the video too.

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