On a hot day at the end of June a team of youth and adults from the Diocese of Southwest Florida were hard at work in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, priming and painting walls, and improving the floor of a tiny two-bedroom home on five-foot-tall stilts that was heavily damaged two years ago by Hurricane Katrina.
The group was part of a weeklong mission trip facilitated by a new organization, the Episcopal Mission Exchange (EMX).
EMX was developed in response to the General Convention's Priority on Youth beginning in 2003. The Office of Youth Ministries of the Episcopal Church, with support of youth ministers of the nine provinces of the church and in partnership with Passport, Inc., an ecumenical student ministry organization, created a resource for parish youth leaders to provide meaningful mission experiences.
"The question was posed: How could we use this money to help youth ministers at the parish level?" said Ross Doebler, youth minister at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, who helped develop EMX along with Cookie Cantwell of the Diocese of East Carolina and Beth Crow of the Diocese of Southern Virginia.
One of the areas that came up often in discussion was mission trips. "Where do you go and who do you trust and how do you raise money and what do you do when you get there," were questions many youth leaders face when they begin to plan a mission trip, Doebler said.
"The idea was to come up with a group that could help facilitate the idea of the mission work and put together resources that would make that much easier for the minister at the parish level."
EMX provides a list of mission opportunities and works with local ministries at each location to help coordinate lodging, schedules and other logistical hurdles.
Putting lives back together
The home Doebler's team was working on belongs to a Cambodian couple. The inside of the home, which sat on the ground during the hurricane, still bears water marks five and half feet off the floor.
The house has not been habitable for the last two years. The couple has been living in a stand-alone garage and using a neighbor's bathroom, two houses away. They bathe in an outdoor stall made of scrap plywood using water from a garden hose.
Sixteen-year-old Jackie Lerigo, from St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Venice, Florida, said the trip -- and the hard work -- has been rewarding. "It's really humid and hot. But after you're, like, all done and stuff, you're going to be pretty tired and you feel really good about it because you've just helped another person get their life back together."
She said the experience has changed her. "My mom was always telling me I need a life ... and now I know what she's saying. Now I'm helping out other people, and it feels really good," she said.
Her father, Ron, came along as a chaperone. A master electrician, he taught many of the teens to use power tools and was impressed by their willingness to work hard. "It's been an emotional experience. I'm really proud of these guys," he said.
Providing more than storm relief
At the same time, about 150 miles to the north, EMX placed a team from the Diocese of Dallas.
Marion, Alabama, the seat of Perry County, is, economically, a world away from North Texas. Fewer that 65 percent of people in Marion over 25 have a high school diploma. Census data indicate the median household earns less that $22,000 a year. More than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The work the Dallas-area teens are doing is typical: painting, repairing windows, replacing a tin roof and general clean-up. The culture shock, the adults say, has been profound.
"I've heard our young people talking this week about the experiences they've had, which are going to be life-changing for them," said Stephen Shaver, a chaperone from Church of the Ascension in Dallas. "We've created a connection here, and that's integral to what the Body of Christ is all about."
Colleen Washington of Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas is the youth chaplain for the group. "I've seen people growing," she said. "The first day, nobody talked, and I had to ask people for answers. Now they're volunteering. .. I've seen them really open up and they're really listening, and I've seen [God] reach out to them."
Christopher Rogers, who attends Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Texas, came to appreciate worship at day's end. "I felt closest to God at the end of each day when we do Compline," he said. "Our counselors are trying to get a theme across to us and just talking about it ... and all of it sinks in.
"It's given me a chance to be in a situation where we're forced to reflect on what we have been called to do as Christians."
'It could have been worse'
A big part of the mission experience, organizers say, is meeting the people who they're helping. Part of the Florida team set up shop at "Miss Edith's" house. They painted the exterior and repaired her wheelchair ramp, among other things.
Miss Edith lives across the street from where she was born 92 years ago. She moved into her current house after getting married in 1934.
Her husband died after a stroke in 1990. Katrina took nearly everything else.
As the storm approached, she was taken to higher ground at her daughter-in-law's house. She didn't get back home for six months.
"They [her family] gave me excuses," she said, for not taking her home, "because my heart's bad." When she finally saw the damage, she said she was in shock.
"I tell you, I don't remember" the day she returned home. "Somebody got me a chair. I don't remember anything else," she said.
"I don't remember what I even talked about. I've erased it from my mind."
But she did remember the help and concern from the businessmen of the community, "the boys," as she calls them. "When I came home, all the boys were in the yard, wanting to do something for me," she recalled with tears in her eyes. "Yea, I have a lot of friends."
The experience was "a mess. I hope I never have to do it again."
With her home repairs nearly finished, Miss Edith spends much of her time these days crocheting and watching television. "I'm doing fine," she insists. "It could have been worse."
Her daughter, Peggy Bosarge, said the town is grateful for the help it has received. "Nobody in this community would ever have come back like we did if it hadn't been for the volunteers coming in. We just can't say enough about them."
The Rev. John Suhar, rector of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg, said the word about their EMX experience will spread. "These youth that we take back will start talking about it to their friends, and I imagine we'll have a lot of youth that will want to come out on the next trip," he said.
How to participate:
All groups who participate in EMX are asked to read a workbook, complete training sessions, attend a pre-project visit, covenant together as a team and complete a post-trip evaluation.
The workbook contains helpful suggestions about planning your mission trip, suggested schedules and advice on fundraising and legal issues. It also provides liturgy for daily worship during the trip and Bible study curriculum.