Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Bolton works on a roof of a homesite near Colcord, WV

By Bolton Kirchner

Wearing an old pair of my dad’s jeans with the t-shirt I designed for a summer service program at Millsaps, I stepped out of a blue pick-up truck in rural West Virginia.  We were in a trailer park, mobile home park, I am still unsure of the most compassionate or politically-correct name.  But the names are less important than the importance that it was someone’s home.  I was starting my first day of work as a summer construction intern for West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps (WVMAW).  Besides a few Habitat for Humanity builds and growing up as the son of an architect, I had few to no construction skills for this first day on the job.  My tool box was nonexistent and immediately as we unloaded the necessary tools, words were thrown around me like sawzall, OSB board, dimpler bit,  and others I didn’t know.

Sawzall took many Google searches to even learn how to spell.  But that was part of the experience, an education unlike one received before, even when many of my classes featured experimental, or service-based learning.  My computer doesn’t recognize dimpler bit or sawzall as correctly spelled because how often are they written down? These tools are pushed out of the traditional academic world, or at least these were not apart of my academic world before this experience.

I had hung frames on the wall before.  I had painted walls before but never had really worked inside or above those wall, which in many ways symbolized the work laid out before me.  I learned more or less how to re-shingle a roof, but more importantly how to stand 15 feet above the ground, comfortably and appreciate the beauty of the scene around you.  I learned other construction-based skills but the major part of my education was with the people.  My previous hammer experience was to improve the look of a wall or space, hanging a photograph there, helping repaint a wall.  At WVMAW we were improving spaces by fixing holes in roofs, on porches and helping inspire those we met.  From my job description I knew getting to know and appreciate others was a part of my day to day responsibilities.  Before the experience, I was unable to recognize this would be an education of itself, like the degree I am also working towards.

Many do not first recognize the giving and receiving between the homeowners and volunteers.  While volunteers provide tangible changes to homes, there is also a transference of neighborly affection between the homeowners and the volunteers.  This may occur without expectation from either. The family of the home looks forward to moving back in or having much needed repairs.  The volunteers look forward to physically impacting an area.  Neither tends to expect the emotional change which inevitably occurs when these groups come together.

This neighborly affection made me realize construction ministry is about much more than hammers, walls, and roofs.  Construction ministry, like here at West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps is about people.  While the physical results of our labor are important, the changed lives from the work proves most important.    A strong connection develops between all the people involved; these connections create a neighborly relationship.

Connecting with our neighbor allows you to actively use your faith.  Concern for others extends to their place and things, helping create a feeling of control for the homeowner.  Seeing people as your neighbor dilutes barriers based on pre-conceived notions of religion, class or background.  One key way we tried to achieve connections between people involved with West Virginia MAW was discussing different kinds of poverty.  Of course economic poverty is a large problem, but what about poverty of the mind, or heart?  While this can seem like a far-flung, Platonic concept, many volunteers were surprised by the simplistic happiness of many homeowners.  While their roof may have holes, or their lives missing things normal in other communities, their lives still work.

Never one at a loss for words, I realized listening to the people whose homes we were working on was a large education.  Unlike something found in a college classroom, these homeowners had a large knowledge of local plants, history and of those around them, their neighbors.  Most wanted to share this information and I even got to sit with one family while they canned the berries they had collected from the nearby woods.

During my blessing and send off from the church were I had lived during the summer, I was presented with a tool box.  Before I opened it, I joked, “Are there tools in here?”  Not that I needed physical tools; during this experience my own toolbox had emerged filled with things seen and unseen.  In between learning the names of a multitude of tools and the uses, I learned a whole lot more about fully living and engaging in life.  Between learning to appreciate sitting in the moment or working through a desire to sit down, there was much to be learned, a whole textbook, of learning from all of the neighbors I met.

Eco-Steward Reflects on Internship: Sabrina Jurey

Recycling Area at First Presbyterian Church, Hinton, WV

My high school calculus teacher used to occasionally show us clips from the Monty Python tv series, which has resulted in one line being permanently engraved in my mind: “And now for something completely different.”

I can use that line to describe several transitions in my life, but it seems particularly appropriate for the mid-point of my Eco-Stewards internship. One day, I was living atop a beautiful mountain with camp staff and children running around everywhere; the next, I was back in a town-setting–back in civilization–working more-or-less in an office, doing internet-based research for much of my day.

This is not to say this was a bad transition; it was simply two very different settings. In many ways, my time at First Presbyterian in Hinton was more akin to my “regular” life. After roughly eight years of college and grad school, research comes naturally to me, and the internet is a familiar place.

My task in Hinton was basically three-pronged: to research options for the running of the church that were more eco-friendly, to help the church set up a recycling area, and to design and lead a worship service based around our responsibility to care for all of creation.

Research? No problem. I found all sorts of options–100% recycled paper, recycled pens and pencils, natural cleaning products, non-disposable plates and bowls. The range of options was pretty exciting to me; I felt like a geek for it, too. But I am okay with my eco-geek side.

The recycling area was fairly straightforward. We cleared out a set of shelves in the basement of the church, found bins made of recycled materials, and got started. The recyclables are going to be taken to Ronceverte (WV), where they recycle a surprising number of items, so I made labels for our fifteen bins and set it all up. My bulletin board skills were put to use in posting information about recycling. Perhaps the best thing about this project was the tangible result–you could actually see that I was doing something at the church.

The most memorable part of my Hinton experience, though, is the worship service. I was asked to plan the whole service–pick the hymns, write the liturgy, and prepare and deliver the sermon. Preaching I’ve done before; not extensively, but enough that I’m fairly comfortable with it. The rest of the liturgy, though? This was new territory for me.

I have more respect now for those who do weekly worship planning. I was lucky enough to find a list compiled of hymns relating to creation-care, but it required a surprising amount of time to flip through them and find those that best fit what I wanted to portray, and best fit my theology. And writing the welcome and the confession of sins and the assurance of pardon and the prayers and the other prayers and the benediction … plus, it was communion Sunday, so there was the setting for that to adapt to a creation-care focus. Let’s just say I don’t think I want to be doing this every week, and kudos to those who do.

It excites me to see churches take more interest in the ecological impact of the ways church happens–to see them want to make a difference in creation. It excites me to have had congregation members come up to me after the service and tell me that I made them think about something, or that they are going to start bringing their recyclable products to the church. It excites me that there is a movement within the church towards ecological responsibility, and I am glad to have been a small part of this.