The day before I left on our summer youth mission trip, I lay in the middle of my friend’s pool, alone on a raft in the shape of a giant turtle and I stared up at the sky and I wept.
I wept because when you’ve spent the better part of 10 months planning a trip for 54 people to Guatemala and you actually have 10 minutes of free time the day before you leave, perhaps there isn’t much left you can do. I wept because I had planned a trip for 54 people to Guatemala and suddenly the weight of every parent or session member’s concern (and it was understandable!) over the past 10 months was spinning in my head like a song on repeat that I just couldn’t shut off – and I thought to myself, “what have I done?! This is crazy!” And I wept because I made the mistake of reading a few articles that had popped up on my Facebook feed in the days prior to the trip. Articles that made me feel as if my efforts to journey into the world of “international mission” were nothing but a waste of time and money. Articles that made me wonder why I would ever take students to another country when our small town is surrounded by needs in Camden and Philadelphia and a shore that still finds itself in the process of rebuilding. It’s as if the gods of social media knew the trip I was planning and wanted to add guilt and shame to the pungent fear and anxiety that had already been building for 10 months and especially in the last week. Now granted, it’s not like every single one of these thoughts hadn’t flown through my brain at some point over the past 10 months, but suddenly the weight of it all felt suffocating and so, I lay alone in the middle of the pool and I wept.
I’m not sure how long I lay there, but it was long enough for my tears to erase any evidence that I’d actually put on makeup that day. And it was long enough that the fear and anxiety and guilt and shame that had led me to tears in the first place, now shifted my own words to prayer: “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.” One way or another, God’s Spirit found its way into my heart that afternoon, and though I wouldn’t say the peace that came passed all understanding, it was at least enough to remind me that for better or for worse 53 other people were going to be meeting me in the church parking lot at 4 a.m. and I better be there to meet them.
Eight days later, overwhelmed by exhaustion, but even more overwhelmed by the abundance of God’s love, I stood before the family of faith that had commissioned us to go and my eyes welled with tears once again. But this time, the tears that flowed were because all 54 people were safe and home. The tears flowed because I was so grateful I had been crazy enough to push this idea 10 months prior. And the tears flowed because despite the feelings of anxiety or fear or guilt or shame that had consumed me in the middle of the pool on that giant turtle, I knew now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Because over the course of the week I watched the worldview of 40 young people (and 14 adults) expand and change. I watched them foster an appreciation for things they so easily take for granted: beds, toilets, food and clean water. I watched them use hammers and power tools to construct three houses in four days in what were otherwise vacant lots surrounded by houses made of tin and tarps and scraps of wood. And I watched them struggle to understand how it was that the people we encountered seemed to “have enough.” I watched them open their hearts to grandfathers and young children and to a God whose love was so evident to them in the people they encountered in Guatemala. I watched them find ways to build a house and articulate God’s love and care despite the language barrier that was present. I watched them open their suitcases with a generosity I had never witnessed from them, asking over and over, “can I donate this? And this? My shoes? My clothes? My favorite hat?“ I watched their eyes fill with tears when they learned that their new Guatemalan friends would likely go several days without food because they had prepared a meal to thank us. I watched them pray and sing and laugh and cry and work, and over and over I couldn’t help but feel as if God’s Spirit was among us. God’s Spirit was among us melting us, molding us, filling us, and using us and I stood in awe of the presence of God and the glimpses of God’s kingdom I had been blessed to witness. I was suddenly aware that my prayer from atop that giant turtle was being answered fully and abundantly and the peace began to pass all understanding.
Perhaps this all could have happened in Philadelphia or Camden or somewhere else in our own backyard—I would never want to claim that it couldn’t. But for the time being, the fear and anxiety and guilt and shame that once led me to tears atop that giant turtle have been replaced by thanksgiving and peace. I am so grateful that we went and I would do it again. I am so grateful that three families in Guatemala now have a home that will stand against the rain and the wind. I am so grateful that every student and adult who I traveled alongside had a powerful opportunity to serve as God’s hands and feet in the world and to experience God’s love thousands of miles from home. I am so grateful for the ways that God worked in us and through us. And I am so abundantly grateful to a God who is with us in Camden, in Guatemala, and even atop a giant turtle, reminding us that God’s Spirit goes before us and behind us and is with us in all that we do. Thanks be to God.
Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Haddonfield, NJ.