[Episcopal Diocese of Texas] Every summer, Missionpalooza sends youth from around the Episcopal Diocese of Texas on a common mission trip. This year, the group of 185 youth made a repeat trip to Bastrop County, Texas where a devastating fire destroyed more than 1600 homes in 2011.
The youth participated in many projects throughout the week, including building decks and sheds, clearing debris, and even building and painting 180 bird feeders from scratch. At first, most Missionpalooza volunteers questioned the worth of building the bird feeders. But when they finished the work, Bastrop fire victims arrived to choose their gift. When a homeowner found a feeder that he or she liked, they would be introduced to the youth that created it.
“It’s really exciting to meet people that I’ve actually done something for,” said Abby Akard of St. Mary’s, Cypress. “It’s the best feeling ever.”
Youth and adults alike were encouraged to post pictures of their work through social media, using the hash tag “#missionpalooza.” Many of the photos went viral, and a recipient of one of the bird feeders commented on Facebook: “I picked one up for myself and my daughter. These are great, giving kids that have done a fantastic job. They are learning how rewarding it is to give. They are proud of their work and rightfully so…Thank you so much, I will cherish it forever.”
On one worksite, youth built two sheds in addition to clearing a lot for “Ms. Kathy,” a homeowner that has not yet been able to rebuild her home. The kids moved charred trees and trash, setting aside some items that may be salvaged. The highlight of the week came when Ms. Kathy visited the worksite to thank the kids for their work and retrieve a couple small trinkets they unearthed.
“Seeing hope in the people of Bastrop has been really cool,” said the Rev. Jimmy Abbott of Holy Comforter, Spring. “Ms. Kathy had sure confidence that she will return. Biblically speaking, its like people returning from Babylon and Ezra and Nehemiah have been commissioned to rebuild the temple and the city walls. And even though it really sucked, we trust that God will be good to us for a long time.”
The youth at Missionpalooza are separated from their fellow church members on different worksites in order to encourage them to build relationships with new people. Kim Faasse of Holy Comforter Spring noticed a difference in the her crew by the end of the week.
“The kids have really come out of their shell,” she said. “They have been working hard all week long and they just want to stay and make a difference. A lot of these kids don’t know what it is like to lose stuff. They live a life where they are well taken care of, but now they really get it. They get that these people have been through a lot, and it is important to them that they make a difference. And now they want to make sure the people of our church know what is really going on out there.”
Thursday marked the final night of the mission trip, and a closing Eucharist really encapsulated what Missionpalooza meant to the community. Chris Files, the president of the Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Committee (BCLTRC), thanked the youth before the Eucharist began.
“The folks of Bastrop are so thankful, you can’t even imagine,” she said. “Fantastic job all week. I just can’t say enough thank yous to all of you.”
To further exemplify that sentiment, the Missionpalooza leadership invited Michelle Vainwright to speak. Vainwright is a youth group member of Calvary, Bastrop, and she lost her home in the fire. She brought much of the group to tears and garnered a standing ovation with her address to the crowd.
“It was really new to me to experience something that sad and stressful,” Vainwright explained with a wavering voice. “I didn’t know how to deal with it… For three or four days, I wouldn’t eat or drink anything. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to cry so bad. I wanted it all to fall apart and let people comfort me, but I couldn’t…For a full year, I couldn’t go to bed without crying before I went to sleep.
“But even though this is sort of ironic, I‘m so happy that it happened because it brought me so much closer to God. I remember watching the whole community come together and knowing that God was there… You have no idea how happy I am to see all of you here to help us, including the group that worked on my house this week. You have no idea what that means to me… I saw a preacher not long after the fire, and he said ‘ashes attract light.’ And that’s the thing about the fire. It attracted God to everybody, whether they realized it or not.”
The Missionpalooza trip marks the ending of Faith Village, an ecumenical volunteer housing facility sponsored by the Diocese of Texas in partnership with Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians. The Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Committee will still disperse funds to build homes for a while, but volunteer trips have essentially ended with the passage of Missionpalooza.