My first mission trip was in the heart of Kentucky. Harlan County is one of the poorest counties in the United States and I was joining a group on their 23rd year serving this wonderful community. I was assigned to an outreach group whose job it was to bring needed clothing, school, and cleaning supplies out into the different communities throughout the county. The first two days were filled with several wonderful experiences. Not only were we filling a need in people’s lives, but we were able to engage in prayer and conversation with this special community. This kind of work was well within my comfort zone and I was filled with joy and thankfulness for the work I was given.
The next two days, a storm rolled in and our plans to set up our operation outside had to be adjusted. We were asked to visit with the residents of a local day care facility. Some of the residents were mentally handicapped, others recuperating from hospital stays or suffering with dementia or old age. They were bused in early in the morning and returned to their families at night. An uncomfortable nervousness came over me. Here there would be no items to hand out, it was the gift of myself – my time – that would have to be tapped into.
Prior to leaving on this trip, our family had been dealing with my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer diagnosis. For those who have experienced this disease, it, to me, can be described as losing someone while their body is still with you. It is painful to watch and puts a strain on the family. Alzheimer is more than forgetfulness and the repetition of stories that often come with old age. It is a living loss of a loved one. To watch their bodies live on while their minds pass away is a heartbreak beyond measure. Visits that were once filled with laughter and familiarity were now a struggle and uncertain. Connecting with my mother in law was something we had to learn along the way and it made me uncomfortable. I just didn’t think I’d be any good at the day care facility. Now, God was placing me in a roomful of strangers, and an audience of my mission peers and all I could imagine was stumbling over my words and feared the awkward silence. I didn’t want to fail.
Our group entered the common area of the facility as the residents stopped and stared at us. I watched as our young adults began introducing themselves to some of the residents – they were already doing a better job than me. I wasn’t even sure how to approach the table of elderly residents that sat before me. Then God, in His goodness, stepped in as one of the elderly gentlemen said, “well howdy, young lady, what’s your name?” HA! That’s all I needed and my gift to gab (and God’s grace) set the tone for a wonderful afternoon.
Everyone needs companionship. It doesn’t matter if words are necessarily spoken either. One young lady, said very little to me, but simply wanted me to color with her. Our presence was the only gift that was needed that afternoon, but it was the lesson that I took home with me that became their gift to me. God never intended anyone to be alone. One of the first stories we read in the bible is in Genesis 2:18 where God says “It is not good for the man to be alone”. He created a partner for Adam – and the first community began. Relationships create community – in our families, our churches, and our neighborhoods and beyond. We brought our gifts to help lift this poverty stricken region and in return they shared their love, wisdom, and community with us. I imagine this is what God intended all along.
When I returned home, visiting my mother-in-law took on a whole new meaning for me. There were days I was called to physically help, other days – listen, sometimes I was just called to sit and fill the lonely void. When my mother-in-law’s condition became worse and she had to be moved to a full time care facility, we learned to take baby steps again. Not everyone would visit at the same time and our time was more one on one. On one of our first visits there with her I captured this photo of my husband and her sharing a tender moment. She was sleeping for most of our visit and my husband looked at me with eyes that said “Well, we may as well leave; she doesn’t even know we’re here.” As he gently went to release his hand from hers, she grabbed it, opened her eyes, looked at him, and brought his hand close to her chest.”
The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved. ~ Saint Mother Teresa of Kalkuta
Karen Ehman’s book Listen, Love, Repeat – she gives this blurb from another author –
Nothing more clearly marks the benignity and the wisdom of God than the arrangement by which people, instead of being solitary wanderers on the face of the earth, with nothing to bind them in sympathy, in love, and in interest to each other, are grouped together in families.
I love how this book describes our human need to dodge the distractions and interruptions of our lives. The need to want to take the easy way out, as I did in my experience during our mission trip. However, in those moments we grow.