If you had to write a composition about what you had learned when you spent a week with 20 teens in a tropical work camp I bet you’d have plenty to say: About what it’s like to share quarters with a million lizards say, not to mention a thousand palmetto bugs, who clung to every vertical surface in such numbers you came to think of them as wall art.
You’d maybe mention the speed with which blisters can bubble up on hands that wield rakes, or the moist beauty of the rain forest breathing quietly beside you.
But the biggest thing I learned on my church’s Mission Trip to Puerto Rico I learned from the presence of Judy, the tall cool blue-eyed Minister of Youth and Parish Life, who led us all week and worked like a dog herself. The 20 kids and the three other adults worked like dogs too.
I worked more like a Persian cat, or possibly a goldfish.
I SHOULD have been hacking and chopping like everyone else and I knew that, but Judy had said it was enough that I was helping lead parts of our meditative 90-minute sessions every night. And I think it was this exemption from much of this hard labor that let me notice something I might have otherwise missed.
Spared so much of the grunt work I saw what the kids were really doing all week long: They were watching Judy, who just kept on smiling –
- When the plane was stalled on the tarmac for an hour.
- When the luggage didn’t make it onto our connecting flight at JFK.
- When we finally threaded through jungle darkness at 3am to settle into a temporary housing in a tiny bungalow, all 25 of us squeezed in to two tiny rooms.
I took one look at the ‘wall art’ that first night and slept fully clothed. Not Judy. Judy showered, which meant she stood under a limp rope of cold water falling from a raw pipe, then donned her high-necked nightie and gathered us to read a Psalm together.
The kids saw how she reacted to things. All week long they saw her roll with every punch. She did this even on our big ‘night off’ when we drove 40 minutes to get to a dank and smelly harbor where we waded through a slimy tide to heave ourselves into kayaks fashioned out of what looked like leftover model airplane parts, so that we might paddle through a dark tunnel of vegetation and arrive in a glowing lagoon.
Straight into this tunnel we propelled ourselves. “Don’t let me tip over! Don’t let me tip over!” I silently prayed as the bony roots of mangrove trees knuckled our heads like playground bullies.
But who actually fell in to the blood-warm swamp because the guide with his limited English said, “Quick, paddle right!” when he meant “Quick! Paddle left”? Judy did – and surfaced laughing, even while what she called her worst nightmare was being played out, as her six-foot self was being unceremoniously boosted back into her craft.
By the hands of four well-meaning males.
So what did I learn afresh at this work camp in the tropics? That much as you might HOPE the young people in your company are listening to what you are trying to tell them, really they are doing something much more important:
Really they’re just watching you with their clear eyes, taking note and remembering how grownups react to things.
This isn’t actually us but it gives you the idea:
This was us – er. this was they. (I was just the one taking the pictures.)