By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” I Corinthians 12:14
The week of August 11-17, 2019, was probably the most diverse week ever recorded at the United Methodist Red Bird Mission Work Camp, in Beverly, Kentucky. Onto that campus came a group of about 75 Christians from many places, representing many forms of diversity.
The groups were sent out each day to work on various projects: building wheelchair access ramps, repairing floors, upgrading bedrooms, and arranging donated clothing for distribution.
We included carpenters, electricians, painters, sign language interpreters, photographers, cleaners, dish washers and people who prayed and led worship. We also experienced the diversity of interacting with the homeowners where we worked and learned of their lives and culture in Appalachia.
We experienced their warm hospitality and the hospitality of the Red Bird Mission staff, conference leaders, work crew leaders and local neighbors we met on our field trips out in the community.
What made this mission trip especially unique was the large number of culturally Deaf* members on the team—20 of them! They were part of “Deaf ELM” (ELM stands for Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist).
This ecumenical organization of Deaf folks and their advocates work together on various common goals of inclusion and empowerment. History was made on this trip when for the first time members engaged in “hands-on mission work.”
Many of our own United Methodist Deaf members are active in ELM. Many were highly-skilled carpenters and craftsmen, and they worked side by side with hearing people who were not fluent in American Sign Language.
The sign language interpreters on each team kept busy filling in the communication gaps; but slowly people began to figure out ways to communicate and work together. Humor and God’s Spirit broke down many of the walls of communication and difference.
We worked hard and came home tired and dirty each day. But we shared in worship each morning and evening and had lots of time on the porch to socialize, meet new friends and play with the resident cats.
On Wednesday night we were treated to a tour of the Red Bird School and an ice cream and cake party hosted by the Red Bird Conference District Superintendent. On Thursday night we had the “Talent-No-Talent” show starring hearing and Deaf people who shared their gifts of music, storytelling, humor and skits.
On Friday, our last night there was a closing communion service with the Deaf Community primarily taking the lead. A Deaf pastor preached, beautiful songs were signed and our young people served the Communion elements.
I saw the Body of Christ in Beverly, Kentucky, this week. And none one of us will ever be the same.
Each of us brings a better understanding of the “other.” Each learned the age-old lesson of I Corinthians 12, that the giftedness of Christ’s Body calls us to join together to do the work of Christ, each one bringing their unique gift to benefit the whole. Everyone had an important gift!
We pray for a day for economic justice for the folks of Appalachia, made poor by the excesses of coal mining and the inability of the rich to share with the poor. These are issues we are struggling with the world over.
Helping the poor on a mission trip is a commendable act of mercy. But justice would call us to bring attention to the inequities that create this poverty and to work for sustainability and empowerment for all. When there is justice there will be peace on earth.
* Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languagesas the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as “big D Deaf” in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d. (Wikipedia)