Memories of Rural Mission

This last weekend I was the photographer for the Charleston and Winthrop Wesley Foundations on their Fall Mission Trip. It’s been a tradition for many years for the two campus ministries to meet in Charleston and conduct a mission trip with UMRC. We were all saddened to see UMRC dissolve this year, but the two campus ministries were determined to go out and serve the community. This year the campus ministers contacted Rural Mission on Johns Island. While it may be the first fall mission trip Charleston and Winthrop have had at Rural Mission, the relationship between United Methodist campus ministry and Rural Mission is much older. Every summer SIM (Student in Mission) workers come to Rural Mission to benefit the community around them. Those college students are changed by the experience. They learn about the cycles of poverty that challenge people living on the islands of South Carolina.

In college I had friends who spent a summer at Rural Mission. I never took advantage of that particular opportunity, but several campus ministries throughout the state traveled  to Rural Mission in May each year for a week long mission trip. Our base camp was Wesley UMC in Hollywood SC. We’d start each day with a quick breakfast and devotion at the church before heading out to our work site. We’d spend the morning at the site repairing someone’s home before returning to the church for a quick lunch followed by an afternoon of continued work. As dinner approached we’d head back to the church and take a shower in the outside shower stalls. It was a cold shower, but after spending a day in the heat, everyone looked forward to it. After dinner we’d attend some community program, have a devotion or just have some free time for games and fellowship. At night we slept on the floor of the fellowship hall of the church.

My time at Rural Mission was probably my best experience without hot water or a real bed. I got to spend a week with a group of fellow college students who were devoted to making someone else’s life better. As much as we helped others, we benefited more. We recognized the opportunities we had in our own lives, and that it doesn’t take much to help someone else. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first work site I ever visited. We were working on a woman’s house in Hollywood SC. Her father built the house she lived in. At that time (around 2000) the house was around 60 years old. This particular house lost electricity after a near miss by a hurricane. That sounds like a simple problem to fix until you realize that to repair a home’s electrical system, the home must be up to code. Imagine being able to pay your electricity bill, but you have to pay $20,000 in home repairs before you can get it turned back on. Living without electricity can be an inconvenience, but for many in remote areas it also means living without water. Many homes in areas like Hollywood and the islands made use of well water, and you need electricity for your water pump to work. The woman at that home carried a 5 gallon bucket to work with her every day. That bucket provided her water for cleaning and flushing her toilets.

That first work site was also where I learned what heirs’ property was and the effect it has on the African American community. Imagine living your whole life in your home, paying property tax, but not owning the land outright. You share the ownership with all your siblings and their descendants. It makes it nearly impossible to renovate the home so you are stuck in a constantly deteriorating situation. It also makes the land an easy target for land developers who are able to isolate an heir who has no connection to the family on the land and make them an offer.

I can’t say we solved all the problems we learned about at that site. We did remove an old rotted out porch on the side of the house. We installed some steps and applied liberal amounts of kool-seal to the old tin roof. We made the home a little bit safer and livable while Rural Mission worked on a better plan forward. We also talked with the woman who lived there. We told her about ourselves, and she told us about her life. We had a good time together, and felt joy for what we accomplished. Most of all we were changed by the experience. We saw only a few hours from where we lived conditions we didn’t expect to exist in the United States. I think many of us thought back to the supposed problems of the semester and recognized how truly trivial they were. It was a humbling experience.

I can’t say that all the socioeconomic problems I described hear have magically been solved in the last decade. Rural Mission still helps many people deal with the issue of heirs’ property. There are still people on the islands who don’t have electricity and live without it for extended periods of time. There are still many people in South Carolina who don’t have constant access to running water. For all the iPhones, wonderful medical treatments and advances of the last decade, that level of poverty is still a large part of the world we live in. What shocks many is that it is nearby. If you pay attention you might realize it is in your neighborhood and affects people you know. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I gained from the experience. Missions doesn’t have to mean a trip half way across the planet. It can start next door. It can be as simple as recognizing a critical need in your own neighborhood and working to solve that need.

If you want to hear some other people’s thoughts on campus ministry and missions, you can listen to the Youtube video I made of the students this last weekend.  There is also a link for the Facebook gallery of all the pictures or you can scroll to the end of post for the link to my Smugmug gallery.

You can also see a shorter (4 minute) version here.