A Mission Trip Reflection by: Erin Daly '13
I've lived a rather sheltered life thus far. Most of it has been spent in relatively wealthy parts of large cities, so my first-hand encounters with things like rural life and poverty have been few and far between.
I was given the chance to experience both those things through a mission trip to the Ozarks, in southern Missouri. Seven other students, one staff chaperone and I traveled to Washington County, an hour from St. Louis, to help the Rural Parish Workers of Christ the King. The Rural Parish Workers are a community of lay women dedicated to serving the poor of Washington County by providing food and clothing to those in need, assisting with home repairs, hosting social events and teaching Catholicism to area residents. Under the watchful eye of "Miss" Natalie Villmer, my mission team and I worked with a small handful of the Rural Parish Workers' clients in many capacities: providing wood for their stoves and fireplaces, making home repairs, cleaning up yards, sorting items for a rummage sale and visiting a few elderly residents.
Initially, I was shocked at some of the living conditions I encountered in Washington County. There are some luxurious homes in the area, but for the most part, many of the residents live in conditions that probably look insufficient to many: Tiny houses and mobile homes with sagging foundations, lightweight roofs and battered walls. They are occupied by people who, through no fault of their own, don't have the means to own a (to many of our standards) better home. There aren't many high-paying jobs in the area, and some homeowners can’t work altogether because of disabilities, illnesses and injuries.
Perhaps more shocking and humbling to me, though, was that these residents didn't seem bitter or hopeless. They were grateful to have a place to live and for my team and me for helping them and simply for visiting them. One encounter in particular captured this gratitude well. One day, my team and I helped a few men who worked for the RPW deliver wood to a client. The eight of us moved a truck bed full of chopped wood to his front door in a matter of minutes. When we were done, the client extended a hearty "thank you" to us, told us that he'd say a prayer for us that night, and said that he wouldn't remember us by our names, but by the halos around our heads. The smallest act of service was deeply meaningful to him.
My team and I had met this man a few days earlier, and he showed us something else in our first meeting that I haven't seen much in the city or wealthier areas: reliance on neighbors. He explained to us that he and his neighbor often turn to each other when they need help or resources. I sensed that many people living in Washington County do the same thing. I realized on the trip how easy it is to worship independence. Relying on others is a sign of weakness in our highly individualistic society, but among some poor people, looking out for one another is a way of life. It was a beautiful reminder of a belief I am trying to practice more consciously: we belong to each other.
This was perhaps the greatest lesson that I learned in my four days in Washington County: that companionship and the presence of others is a greater treasure than anything that can be bought and owned. Of course being without basic necessities is an injustice, but with it comes a realization of just how important those human connections are. Material goods sometimes get in the way of helping us find the most important things in life. I discovered this not only in the Rural Parish Workers' clients and in the elderly people we visited, but also in myself. I have many comforts at Clarke and at home: a laptop, a cozy bed, Internet and the like. But I didn't miss those things as much as I thought I would when I was away from them. I was content with the company of my mission team. We were crammed in our van for hours on the way there and back. We ate together and watched movies together. We shared stories of our lives with each other. And even though we were all eager to get back home at the end of it all, we found that we didn't want to leave each other. It’s funny how it took being thrown into a relatively isolated place to learn the joys of being connected and that sometimes, the most meaningful gesture is just being present to someone.