Friday, October 24

Verified and ready for deployment

Tonight at Sager Brown was the traditional Thursday night vesper service. It is an opportunity to reflect on the week's mission and ministry - and a chance to worship together with our new friends. I was honored to be the worship leader for the service led by various members of all the teams here. This afternoon I finally succumbed to a cluster headache that has been lurking for a couple of days - the medication made me groggy and a long nap made me feel like my brain and body were disconnected. As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I wondered if I would be able to make it through. I was swatting mosquitos (the state bird of Louisiana) and staring into space - then Geraldine began playing the piano and people around me were humming along.

A peace swept over me and I felt my spirit lift. Suddenly the headache and its lingering effects faded into the background. The service began and it fed my soul. As the congregation sang the hymns, I felt renewed. The worship team led in scripture, prayer and song - and then the congregation had an opportunity to share stories of experiences that blessed them this week.

We heard how individuals served by cleaning seniors' apartments and were blessed to hear about their lives. We heard how touched volunteers were by interactions with residents at the food distribution. One man told how people's faces lit up when they got to see the UMCOR Depot materials manager Freddie and hear his hearty greeting. Freddie is a big guy with a heart to match. Whether he is riding around on his forklift moving materials or stopping to give fellow staff member Rolanda a good natured ribbing - you can feel the love oozing out of every pore. Freddie is someone you just want to wrap up and ship home with you. But you'd need a big crate.

As the vesper service entered the sacred time of celebrating the Lord's Supper - the congregation sang a hymn that is fairly new (anything past 1970 is considered new in the Methodist church!) - One Bread, One Body. The lyrics to the refrain are "One Bread, One Body. One Lord of All. One Cup of Blessing which we bless. And we, though many, throughout the Earth. We are one body in this one Lord." That pretty much sums up the whole experience.

We join together - as different parts of the same body. Some of us are toes, some are hands, some are ears and others are feet. God takes all the parts and joins them together. We have come together and as this one body - we can accomplish great things.

After the service, a lot of hugging happened. And people exchanged phone numbers and emails and promises to find each other on Facebook. We don't want to lose the connections that we have formed. It will be hard to say goodbye (or just "see you later") but in our hearts we know that we will all still be a part of the same body.

United Methodists are part of a connectional ministry - each individual church contributes in some way to the whole. Some is through monetary apportionments (literally A Portion Meant - for others) and one way is through the connected ministry of UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). This depot/warehouse contains kits created by United Methodist congregations all across the country. They merge together here in tiny little Baldwin, Louisiana for review and verification. Then they are scattered back out to the world.

We are much like those kits - we were sent from our congregations, supported by friends and family to come here to Baldwin where we have been tested and made ready to go back out into the world. Are we ready for deployment like the kits you see here? I sure hope so. I know I'm a little more ready than I was a week ago. When kits are deployed, the container is blessed by the volunteers working in the depot at that time...tonight's vesper service does much the same thing. And I pray that we will be a blessing to all those we encounter as we continue our work as the body of Christ.

Thursday, October 23

Entertaining Angels Unaware

Tonight's team devotions focused on strangers. And there are no stranger people than the ones I'm traveling with (**rimshot**). No seriously...

Karen asked us to remember back to when we went to summer camp or something like that - to recall that feeling of anxiety and feeling out of place and uncertain. Then she asked if we still felt like that after a couple of days at camp. Everyone agreed that we met new friends and by the end of the week we didn't feel anxious anymore - we just felt sad that we would be separated from our new friends. Then she asked if we had a similar feeling when we arrived at Sager Brown - I know that I certainly did, and this is my third trip here!

Dorothy and Sherri
But within a day, I had met all kinds of great people that I want to know for the rest of my life. I think about Pastor David who has a sense of humor that is dry, a smile that is quick and a passion for serving others. Then I think about Melissa from Tyler, Texas who has the warmest spirit. She leads missions for her church and has given me new and exciting ideas to share with our missions committee back home. And the wonderful lady who has joined our group verifying health kits - we love Dorothy so much that when we were asked for a name for our dinner ticket tonight, Gordon and Sherri gave the name Dorothy. :)

Others in our group shared stories of "strangers" they have come to know. Jack, the spry 91 year old who worked tirelessly distributing food to seniors today...and in the process inspired even harder work by members of our team. Cathy the RN who has doctored members of every group including two of our team...her love of caring for others benefits all those around her. (she's also a hoot - dancing for sweet potato pancake day and laughing when I said that snowy egret tastes like chicken).

Mom and Melissa working (?)
Still more stories were shared about meeting strangers and being blessed by that exchange. Garland, Renee and Carole encountered a Baldwin resident who welcomed them to sit on the front porch and hear stories - they enjoyed the time as much a the lady did. When the seniors were picking up their food, Belva's favorite part of the distribution was the opportunity to chat with the people being served. Carl (aka Dad) has spent the week working on houses in the community. One young man whose house was being repaired is a paraplegic - his damaged roof caused ceiling damage and now that the roof has been repaired the Sager Brown outreach ministry worked to repair the ceiling. Another project involved stabilizing a porch that was in danger of collapse. A few man hours and some support posts later, a life was made a bit better.

Sometimes we think that in order to change the world we have to do something huge and sweeping: cure cancer, donate a wing for a hospital, write symphonies or design cathedrals. The fact is: the little sparks make the real difference. Some suggestions from the team during devotions tonight included:

- tell someone they look nice today
- tell the drive thru worker they have a great voice, or tell them you don't know how they keep it all straight during the rush hour (let them know they are doing a good job...)
- look someone in the eye and say "good morning" as you walk your dog
- compliment a coworker
- learn your server's name and use it when you say "thank you" (you'd be surprised how many people they wait on that don't even look up)
- send a personal note (or email, or Facebook message, or tweet...if you are a twitterer) that says to another human being "I appreciate the person that you are."

Because in doing this, we spread love. And isn't that the point? You don't know what an impact that may make on someone's day...or even their life.

Wednesday, October 22

Appreciating the Joy of a Great Meal

We worked hard in the depot today...but the topic of today's post is food.

One of the benefits of being part of a mission team at the Sager Brown UMCOR Depot is the wonderful food prepared by the Sager Brown staff. The depot is where the work happens, but right next door is where we sleep and EAT! (And the administrative offices, outreach office and the shop are there also...I'll tell more about that later in the week).

The buildings are actually part of the former campus of a school and orphanage begun in 1867. The Sager Brown mission school served families and children of Louisiana for over 110 years before it closed. In 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated the gulf coast the buildings were placed back into service during the recovery efforts and UMCOR Sager Brown was born. If you'd like to read more of the history, click here.

Some of the buildings are used as dorms. The simple accommodations are clean and pleasant, but no expense is wasted. The groups that come to volunteer in the depot or doing work in the community pay far less than a hotel and meals would cost and are rewarded with bounteous feasts thanks to the skills of the kitchen crew.

Yesterday's breakfast was biscuits, gravy and sausage links. Lunch was Ham with Pineapple and a lovely concoction of cheese and spaghetti (sort of like mac and cheese but with a higher cheese-to-pasta ratio), dinner was burgers and sweet potato fries. There is a great salad bar at lunch and dinner that includes pickled okra and there are always delightful desserts. I'm hoping they could start catering the Kiwanis lunches I attend twice month!

But today was a special day - sweet potato pancakes for breakfast and crawfish etouffee for lunch. And cheesecake for dessert.

One of my blog followers (and Facebook friends) commented while I was in the midst of writing this "quit telling us how very, very well you are eating! Tell about how very hard you are working!" Yes, we are working very hard. But part of the experience is the fellowship and camaraderie of meals, devotions and even sitting around playing cards. It is the total package that makes this experience unique. We laugh and sing and work and sweat and tease and cajole and support and pray for each other. I want my readers to know that being part of a mission team isn't a monk's life.

I think that is a misconception that we need to break - being Christian and serving others is fun. It is a joyful existence. You don't have to be serious all the time. You still get to have fun AND believe that God loves you. You can serve others AND smile and enjoy life. We focus hard on the work at hand but when we have the opportunity, we also get to embrace the great talents that God has given the staff in the kitchen. Today's crawfish etouffee was probably the best I've ever had. After a hard morning in the warehouse opening cases of toothpaste to be included in the health kits (toothpaste is heavy!) - the staff greeted us with smiling faces and delicious food to get us refreshed and ready to go back at it again. Even Jesus took time to recharge his batteries.

It is a great time here. We are meeting new friends, serving people in the community with home repairs and cleaning, providing assistance with a monthly food distribution for seniors and yes...verifying and packing a LOT of health kits (3 pallets today alone)! But equally important is the fact that our entire team is being reminded that Christianity isn't a gathering of sourpusses wonking each other over the head with Bibles and pointing out each others' shortcomings...we come in joy to serve the Lord because we have received so much. My favorite artistic rendition of Jesus is a picture of him laughing - it reminds me that God loves us and delights in us. bed, to rest and prepare for another day. Morning will be here before long!

Monday, October 20

Making the machine

Day one of work at the UMCOR Sager Brown Depot. The depot is the main distribution point for relief supplies from the United Methodist church to global and domestic disasters. During orientation today we heard that in 2013 the value of goods shipped was just over 7 million dollars. It included 369,286 health kits (which contain a hand towel, washcloth, bandaids, soap, fingernail clippers, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste); 124,010 school kits; 11,032 clean birthing kits; 5,248 cleaning buckets; 19,859 layette kits; 5,040 sewing kits; and 2,471 bedding kits.

It is a great example of what happens in connected mission - individuals in churches all across the country make kits using instructions found on the UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) website. Then the kits are gathered, often at the regional or state level. They are then shipped to Baldwin, Louisiana where they are verified and packed to be ready for distribution when the need arises anywhere in the world.

My morning began a little rough...I'm rooming with 7 other people. 2 of them snore. Really loud. So I put in my earplugs. At some point when folks were starting to get up, I pulled the covers over my head to block out the light. The next thing I know...Carole is poking me in the chest. I uncovered my head and said something like, "what?" to which she replied "breakfast." I looked at my phone and saw that I had four minutes to get to the dining hall. I made it in three. My hair was a wreck, I was wearing flip flops and my glasses...but I made it just before the bell rang. Whew. Not sure why it didn't occur to me that earplugs that would block out bears on my right and left would also block out the sound of my alarm. I'll need a new plan tomorrow morning.

What was the best part of working today? How easily everyone works together. I've worked in a lot of different environments - but this situation is different. I think that the difference is that everyone leaves their ego behind. They are flexible and fit in where the greatest need is, instead of where they want to be. I worked with two amazing guys in the packing station. We had all worked in that area before but this was the first time we had worked together. We came up with systems to keep the work flowing smoothly. Sure, things came up through the day that needed troubleshooting and whenever that happened - we just came up with solutions.

I observed that in other work areas - people sharing the work load, helping each other. Efficiency and accuracy were more important than volume and who was getting more done. It is a different kind of work environment than "normal."

Many years ago I was in a show called "Stop the World." I was part of the clown chorus. During that show the director (who was Kevin Bacon's first acting teacher...making me two degrees separated and that makes all of you three degrees separated from Kevin Bacon! But I digress...) wanted the clown chorus to represent a machine. He was actually kind of a lousy director...he pretty much worked with the principle actors and left us to figure out our blocking on our own. So the six of us went to work turning ourselves into a machine. It was six performers. With six giant egos. A piece of stage business that took 4-5 minutes of the show took nearly 2 hours to perfect.

I think watching the 30-40 people working in the depot today - merging into an efficient and beautiful machine was more wonderful than any work environment I've ever been a part of.

What great strides we could make in this world if we could all lose our egos and just focus on the end goal - improving the world one tiny bit at a time. As part of devotions tonight we sang "Pass it On" which starts with the lyric: It only takes a spark, to get a fire going. And soon all those around, can warm up to its glowing. Be a spark. You don't have to do any more than that...

Greater than the pieces

The sun has set over Bayou Teche and the mission team from Centenary UMC is settling in for the night. As I reflect over the two days of travel, one word comes to mind - patience. The trip from 1501 Rivermont Ave. to Baldwin, Louisiana is a shade over 1000 miles. If you could drive it without stopping for gas, snacks, rest or bathroom breaks - it would take about 15 hours. Reality makes it more like 18 hours. Despite the cramped quarters and monotony, the group of 14 people in the church van and a mini van remained more than just civil...we actually got to know each other a little better!

Bringing together different people with diverse talents, differing personalities and widely varied interests is pretty much a parallel to what this mission is about (and it also parallels churches and society as a whole). You take the best of each individual part and when combined - it creates this perfect mosaic. That reminds me of a story I was listening to in the van (I'm not much of a morning person so I spent the first part of today's drive listening to Father Greg Boyle's "Tattoos on the Heart" and playing Fruit Ninja).

I've shared the book "Tattoos on the Heart" with a great many people. I've also included his illustrations in sermons and probably on this blog. It is an illumination of the concept of compassion and kinship through the stories of gang members served by Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program in the poorest parish in Los Angeles. But I digress...the story I remember from this morning involved Pastor G (his nickname from the homies...short for Greg) spending time serving alongside prisoners in a camp in Bolivia. He tells about a time that he and one of the prisoners made an illegal pot of iguana stew. Apparently the prison camp food was beyond bad - so one afternoon they found the opportunity to scavenge some vegetables (okay, the prisoner swiped the vegetables from one of the guard's houses while G acted as reluctant lookout). The amazing thing wasn't the fact that they managed to make the stew without getting caught - it was what happened while it was being created. In an unusual iteration of the classic "stone soup" tale, other prisoners found G and the prisoner, were invited to join and each one brought a secret, precious stash to add to the pot. The iguana was joined by a handful of coarse salt, a shriveled jalapeno... Each brought to the feast something precious and the final product was enjoyed by all.

That is what we do when we join together. We bring what we can - something precious and sacred to each of us - and the final product is an incredible mosaic of talents. It becomes something more than just the sum of the parts. It doesn't make mathematical sense - it is beyond explanation.

I look forward to this week that will surely involve hard work, personal sacrifice and yes, patience. I will strive to step back and let the mosaic come together without trying to fit the pieces together. And at the end of the week we will find that we have been a part of something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than the sum of the parts.

My fellow team members and I will share the experience with you through the week. Please be in prayer for us.

Wednesday, October 8

An Opportunity to Change Lives

I have spent far too long away from The Beaten Hamster. I just get so busy, ya know? But I have something really exciting to share with you, so I'm back!

On Saturday, October 18, I will be part of a 13 member team headed to do mission work in Louisiana. Baldwin, Louisiana is the home of the Sager Brown United Methodist relief supply depot where thousands and thousands of relief supplies flow from congregations to the world.

Imagine that you've been hit with a natural disaster, like a hurricane (easy to picture here in Virginia). Maybe you've been displaced from your home. All you have are the clothes on your back. You are feeling alone (even if you are surrounded by a bunch of other people going through the same catastrophe). Now imagine a person walking up with a package that includes a wash cloth, hand towel, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, nail clippers...and a few other items. You get the opportunity to clean up and feel a little more human. It can change your perspective. Perhaps give you the desire to keep going.

Imagine you are a living in a poor village in Africa. You want to go to school more than anything. You know that education is the key to improving life in your village, improving life for your family. But you lack school supplies. Or what the school considers proper attire. Enter the UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) school kit or sewing kit (or both!) and you have the tools you need to start that life-changing path to education.

Or perhaps you are in a third world country and pregnant. You know that your baby has less chance of surviving because of infections incurred during the birthing process. You may not even have a blanket and clothes for your newborn. Birthing kits provide necessary tools, like a sanitary razor blade to cut the cord and clean string to tie it off. Layette kits provide some basic clothing that can help a new baby survive in a challenging environment.

And I get to be a part of making that happen!! I will be working in the warehouse helping to check the kits (they have to be exactly as the customs forms indicate or the whole shipment could be seized) and pack them for shipment. The relief depot works hard to be certain there are kits ready to ship at a moment's notice. When disaster strikes, we'll be ready.

Most of the week I'll be wielding a tape gun and box cutter...but the trip is about more than just the work. I get the chance to grow closer to the team I'm traveling with - and to get to know teams from across the US. There is something amazing about being part of a group all pulling in the same direction. Which brings me to my last point...

I want you to be a part of this too! In addition to prayers and following our team's progress via my blog and the Centenary UMC Facebook...I need something tangible. I need a few more bucks to pay my way to Louisiana and back. If you can kick in $20 (or more...or less) you can send it me by mail (Chris Howell, 207 Maple Drive, Madison Heights, VA 24572), you can email me money if you have PayPal ( or you can send the money straight to Centenary United Methodist Church, 1501 Rivermont Ave., Lynchburg, VA 24503. Heck - even the church has PayPal! You can click here to go to CUMC's donation page. After you've entered your info...on the second page, please click on the "special instructions for recipient" and note that it is for the Sager Brown Mission trip - Chris Howell.

Thank you - and stay tuned to see how the trip goes! (click here if you want to see pictures from a previous trip!)