By: Kate Conti, Kanapaha Presbyterian Church
Note: This article is based on Kate’s presentation at the Winter Stated Meeting of the Presbytery of St. Augustine held on February 6, 2016.
Three years ago, I participated in the Mutual Mission Youth Exchange between Florida and Jamaica. One year later, I would graduate from high school and then go on to college. Even now as I’m rounding out my second year of college coursework, it feels like those two weeks of mission work were only yesterday. The memories I have from that trip are still so vibrant that it doesn’t seem possible that it all happened within a matter of fourteen days.
This mission opportunity came at a crucial time for me as a weary, burnt-out student eager to graduate. I say it was an opportunity because mission work gives us a clearly-defined venue in which to grab ahold of our fears, worries and insecurities so that they may be transformed and used for God’s greater purpose.
In my experience both in Jamaica and Jacksonville, I was able to lose my sense of self for moments at a time every day – and in so doing, allow God to work through me to help those with greater needs than my own.
One of our first days in Jamaica, we visited a “Golden Age Home” – a much more attractive name for what is often called a “nursing home.” Our group of adult leaders, Jamaican and Floridian youth all stumbled into this small building and overtook the group of residents inside. We were all individually trying to engage our new acquaintances in light, friendly conversation and learn a few details about our conversational partners here and there. As I made my way around to everyone who was there, I came to notice a woman sitting in the very middle of the room. She wasn’t talking to anyone or doing much of anything, really, but calmly sitting and smiling. After some time passed, I went over to this mysterious happy woman to try and chat her up, as you do with new acquaintances. This urge to “chat up” others upon first meeting is a pretty familiar instinct for most of us: fill the silence, just keep talking and everything will be fine! So, I said “Hello,” and she smiled and let out a light, friendly laugh in welcome. At least, that’s what I decided that meant…but, then, she did something that startled me a bit – she took my hand. There I was, looking into the eyes of this mystery woman who I absolutely did not know. In any other situation, I might have become quite uncomfortable at this point in the interaction and withdrawn my hand – but that is not what happened. A pair of relative strangers sat, smiled and held each other’s hands in the middle of a busy, noisy room.
That’s all it takes! Simple things – smiles, flashes of eye contact, a “Hello” can become so meaningful. To be clear – I do not mean that I had a profound effect on this woman, but I know that meeting left a great, positive impact on me.
It gave me a model for how to approach all the other unfamiliar situations I would encounter in those two weeks. Simply, as you’ve more than likely heard many times before, we must approach every situation with love – with God, first. We may choose take this approach with a smile, a greeting, or perhaps even a song.
My favorite day in Jamaica was the day we visited a home for children with HIV/AIDS. The children there ranged from as young as five years old to girls and boys as old as I was at the time. We learned firsthand that many of even the youngest girls were very talented hairstylists, and some of the older girls informed us of their plans to attend cosmetology school in the future. But before we got our makeovers, there was an uncomfortable moment – much like the one I had at the Golden Age Home.
On the plane to Jamaica, I shared my iPod with one of the other Florida kids and realized the boy who I was sharing my music with did not also have Beyonce’s entire discography included in his own music collection.
So in that moment where I couldn’t think of what to talk with these girls about, I asked them if they liked Beyonce. Of course, they said yes! So I sang Beyonce songs with the girls and it opened up the door for hair braiding, piggyback rides and more shared, fun moments.
By the way, we did also do some work: painting schools, churches, organizing clothing donations – but because we approached our work with love, with God, together, all I remember is all the shared smiles and fun.
Finally, I am so thankful to my church for making this opportunity available to me. I have been empowered through this positive experience to give back more willingly and joyfully to my own community and learned more of what it means to act with love in every situation.