We had a fantastic week with friends from the Brody Jewish Center – Hillel at UVA. We traveled to the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, NC for a week of service, worship, conversation, and deep learning.
Two Wesley team members offered reflections upon returning home. The first one is from Kate Thrasher. Scroll down for the final one from Matt Paysour.
Thank you for your prayers and support for this trip!
No Bad Questions, Just Big Ones – Kate Thrasher
It is hard to briefly summarize an entire week of new experiences while being specific and insightful to all of the memories made and experiences had on the spring break trip this year. So, I’m going to try my best to portray the happenings of my week at Hinton Rural Life Center with the Jewish student group, Hillel, but I can’t promise it’ll cover all of the amazingness. Here’s my best attempt.
There’s something about doing really taxing work (like rolling logs around) and sitting in the sunshine for a break afterwards that brings people together. Maybe it was the endorphins from working, maybe it was the warmth of the sunshine after a snowy winter, or maybe it was the idea of filling our tummies with nourishment, but everyone seemed so happy during those breaks. Lunchtime was a great time: my small team of 4 would joke around, share out random banana facts, and question each other about our religious beliefs and practices. I learned a lot during the break times and I formed new friendships that will hopefully last a long time.
Even though breaks during the work day were fun, our “Ask Big Questions” discussions in the evenings were my favorite part. We were asked questions to get us thinking about ourselves and service and our priorities and we would share our thoughts. It was really interesting to hear others’ ideas and the things each person was passionate about. Talking about your beliefs and priorities in life is impossible to do without first having a mindset of openness, so I really think these discussions fostered a great sense of openness throughout the group that lasted the whole trip.
Of course, aside from the discussions and questions about beliefs and practices, there was some good old fashioned fun had! We went on a couple of hikes and visited the John C. Campbell Folk School where they teach crafty classes (woodworking, blacksmithing, pottery, knitting, jewelry, etc). We went down to a bonfire a couple of nights, took pictures by the lake using fun lighting, laid in the grass and gazed at the stars, and sat on the porch with the sun warming our skin. So many relaxing moments were shared; it was such a good week.
Going on an interfaith mission trip is a little nerve wracking. Before Wesley and Hillel gathered on Sunday morning to depart for Hayesville, NC, I was so worried about sounding silly around our new friends or asking bad questions. But we quickly got to know each other and I developed relationships with each person, and I realized that they were all really open to sharing their faith and wanted to help us understand them and how Judaism affects their lives, just as we wanted them to see how we worship and get a picture of our experiences as Christians. The atmosphere was so welcoming and open, I felt so comfortable talking to each of the Jewish students about Judaism and the things I didn’t understand. I know so much more about Judaism now, and (even just one day post-trip) I have found myself having conversations with others about it! I’m so grateful for the bonds we formed and I am so excited to see how my new knowledge of Judaism and renewed passion for service change my day-to-day life now that I’m back in the hurried life of a college student.
Unexpected Narrative by Matt Paysour
When I was asked just a week or so before this trip to write 400 to 700 words on what it was like to be a part of an interfaith service trip, I had already started working on the narrative this reflection was going to take. Much of it was planned out the day we left. Maybe I would write something about how Jews and Christians alike came together, put aside our differences, realized we’re all really just humans here, and worked together for the betterment of mankind. Or at least the people of Hayesville, North Carolina. It would really be a lovely story – beautiful, heart-warming, if not a little trite. The framework was in place, and I spent the better part of the first few days hunting for details to fit the narrative I had already made. I mean, look at us! We were working hard at times, talking and laughing amongst each other! Even poking a little fun at our own respective religions and cultures! I liked to think that we skipped all the gritty beginning that comes with the clash of differences and moved straight on to the point of mutual understanding, the happy montage where the team comes together and starts changing the world. Think Remember the Titans where the Titans are winning everything while The Hollies play some groovy early ‘70s rock in the background. I liked to think that we were already at this point without even having to endure what I’ll call, for the sake of metaphorical consistency, “summer camp.”
Except that narrative of such a simple uniting wasn’t what was happening here, although summer camp was still yet to come.
This became apparent one evening during our worship time. Some of us Wesley musicians were sorting through songs to sing, looking for lyrics that held no mention of Jesus so that we could sing them with our Jewish friends from Hillel, or at least avoid stepping on any toes or risk something uncomfortable. After all that effort, we ended up accidentally singing about “our coming King” (hint: that’s Jesus; and, as a useful aside, just because a Ctrl + F search in the lyric pages for “Jesus” or “Son” returns no results doesn’t meant you won’t be singing about Jesus). We started to apologize about this later but, Billy, one of our new Hillel friends, stopped us before we could finish. We were told it was okay. That this kind of worship, in fact, would be welcomed. Because we’re here to learn about each other. Not to always try and worship together. Not to find our lowest common denominator and shift our emphasis to whatever that is. But to learn about each other.
And thus ended the metaphorical summer camp, and thus began the course of a new and unexpected narrative. We had multiple intense, fascinating, and exhausting discussions (or sometimes even arguments) where we simply sat around in a circle and asked each other questions about our faiths and our cultures. Some asked for thoughts on God or sacred texts while others just wanted to know how a yarmulke stays on your head, but each question and answer often highlighted different stances, even amongst those part of the same faith identity. The week went on with each day presenting something new. Mornings meant working side by side to serve Hayesville, while evenings were about sharing our cultures. Jews shared challah one evening and Christians shared communion one evening. Christians sang of Jesus and Jews sang in Hebrew. We even engaged in traditions entirely new to Christians among us, whether it was the somber and tamer mood of a Shabbat service or the festive theatricality of a Purim spiel.
Not all of these activities were participatory for all, but we started to realize that that was okay. The week wasn’t about putting aside our differences as I thought it should be earlier. Just the opposite, in fact. This week was about celebrating our differences, realizing that we’re all more than just humans here. The mere idea that we’re all “just humans here” suddenly became, for me, a demeaning understatement. Do we want others to see us as nothing more than a human-shaped entity, just like themselves? Or do we want others to see us as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist or an engineer, scientist, writer, historian, goofball, hard-worker, skeptic, optimist, or whatever have you? The beauty of humanity lies not in its universality, but in its diversity. This week, through its unique sharing of differing belief and tradition, showed us that.
But this week also showed us that there is no need to put those differences aside to be together. We can still serve alongside each other, splitting wood, painting homes, and staining decks and still be Christian and Jewish alike. We can still love each other and enjoy each other’s company. Our new friendships showed us that. We learned a lot this week, but we did not work toward mutual understanding by finding our common ground and never straying. To reach the point of mutual understanding Wesley and Hillel worked toward this week, it requires, quite simply, a much different narrative.