This summer I spent time at Montreat Conference Center. I was lucky enough to be a recreation leader for two weeks of youth conferences. My job was to bring the fun, create an environment where youth could be themselves, try new things, find community, succeed with laughter, fail without consequence and embrace silliness all along the way. In God we live and move and have our being, after all, and so I danced on stage and watched 1,200 youth imitate it all. We played enormous games outdoors in open fields and we filled an auditorium with cheers and songs.
Everyone saw me do those things. What far, far fewer people saw was the small crew of college students who brought all of these plans, activities and hair-brained schemes to fruition. Sure, a giant Olympic-themed obstacle course elaborate enough to occupy those 1,200 youth at one time sounds like a great idea, but who’s going to create 27 javelins made out of pool noodles, dowels and duct tape? Who’s going to manage multiple human foosball games big enough for 60 people to play at the same time? Who’s going to carry the equivalent of 10 gallons of rocks across fields, up a few flights of stairs and then back down again… three times a week? It takes a team, and an integral part of the team is Work Crew.
Work Crew is a small group of college students who volunteer to come to Montreat with their home churches. They travel with their home groups, live with them and pay their way for the week, just like everyone else. But instead of being a participant in the activities, they exist behind the scenes and help make it all happen, often sacrificing not only the time of the activity itself, but also their free time in order to help make supplies, learn technical details and fill in wherever gaps appear. And then, when it’s all over, when everyone else is heading back to their rooms or their houses, Work Crew helps clean up.
Even more than their physical work, however, Work Crew provides an important witness: Church matters to these young adults. They have figured out that what can appear to be “Montreat magic” or “just a God thing” in fact often takes an awful lot of preparation and effort. And they are willing to help make it all happen. “I joined Work Crew because I knew how special the Montreat experience was for me, and I wanted to help make that happen for others,” said Lauren Scott, a sophomore at Florida State University and a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Pensacola, Florida. “I also wanted another opportunity to be a support system for my back home church.”
She continued, “Church, to me, means community and a home. The church is a group of people who love you no matter what, despite what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what might happen in the future. It means having role models to look up to, but it also means taking on the responsibility of being a role model to others.”
For Work Crew, responsibility isn’t particularly glamorous. They themselves noted this cleaning up after our Tuesday afternoon, conference-wide recreation event. Among many other activities spread across the campus, several tables were covered with rocks and sharpies. The instructions were fairly simple: Take a rock and write a word or draw a picture that symbolizes a time you were aware of God’s presence or help in your life. Those supervising this station offered a short explanation about Ebenezers, familiar to conferees after singing “Come Thou Fount.” Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come… And so several hundred conferees picked up a stone, marked it in some way and added it to an ever-growing pile.
This seemed like a lovely idea right up until we faced the reality of removing and re-setting these stones at multiple events throughout the week. At the risk of stating the obvious: 10 gallons of stones are heavy. As Work Crew members and I carried them, we bemoaned how we had failed to think through the practical implications of this particular activity. But then, an off-hand remark offered a significant amount of perspective. In the midst of complaints, a Work Crew member said, “You know, we’re carrying hundreds of people’s stories right now. Of course it’s a little heavy.”
We trudged a few feet further in thoughtful silence before laughter and antics took over again, but we didn’t complain about the Ebenezers for the rest of the week. On more than one occasion, someone made an effort to go retrieve them and bring them to an event that didn’t necessarily require their presence.
I’ll not soon forget the thrill of capturing conferees’ energy and attention on one of our denomination’s biggest stages. But neither will I soon forget the wisdom and grace of the Work Crew, especially as they carried, quite literally, others’ stories all week long. “The church is a constant in the world that always seems to be changing,” Lauren said. “The church reminds us that we are all God’s children and that we are never alone.”
“We’re carrying hundreds of people’s stories,” they said. It is moments like these that compel me to celebrate the past, present and future of the church. It is moments like these that reassure me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that while there is still much work to do, we, the church, are still getting some things right. It is moments like these that give me energy when I am weary, hope when I am frustrated, and motivation when I am complacent. It is moments like these that remind me that God is faithful still.
Here I raise my Ebenezer.
Jenny McDevitt is pastor of pastoral care at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas.