Nine years ago I began a unique love affair.
My wife and I took six students to Memphis Workcamp. We supervised a work crew of another 14 students in the heart of Orange Mound. It was humid. It was difficult. And the house was large, and without electricity. We were to paint this home. The project was to be completed in four days, and it took every available minute.
Since then, Workcamp has become the best week of my year. Each year has been tough, but rewarding, and each has been an exhausting blessing, complete with all good things that come from good, hard work. Few students, though, have little desire to spend four days in the middle of a very dangerous city, painting homes of people who live with much less. Having said that, though, some of our years have seen more students, and some years have seen less. This year was a famine of numbers, with only six working, but it was a feast of heart.
Also, this has been a summer of origins for me, and I feel that in some way, God is taking me back to my first summer of youth ministry. Here’s why. Much like my first summer, I am without an intern. I took only six students to my first Workcamp, and that is the amount of students who attended this year. Workcamp itself was hosted by a different church, and the atmosphere and feeling, in the new place, was new to me all over again.
I felt, a few months ago, that God would teach me new things through the summer months. I’m not sure I’ve completely learned all of those lessons yet.
Memphis is now considered to be the second most dangerous city in America. It is one of the poorest cities, in one of the poorest states in America. In some neighborhoods, the infant mortality rate is higher than in some third-world countries. The amount of assaults, robberies, and burglaries are higher in Memphis than most American cities.
And we painted homes.
In a city with over 600,000 people, it is not the grandest of projects. But when you drive on these streets, streets in Orange Mound that are notorious for violence, you will see older homes which today look clean and new. The paint shines. Trim work accents the base color. Bushes are trimmed. They look like homes that should be somewhere else, in other, more affluent neighborhoods. But they are not.
And on those streets, those hot, Memphis streets, forgotten streets until the law needs enforced, there were students, white, middle-class students, students born into privilege, serving people with much less. And we have made a difference on those streets, and have made a difference in our own hearts.
It was a week of discovery.
To change a city, you must serve a city. You cannot change a city with entertainment. You cannot change a city with worship, even great worship. You cannot change a city with novel ideas. You cannot change a city with music and song. You cannot change a city with good facilities. You cannot change a city with money. You cannot change a city with heart. You cannot change a city with things contemporary, and you cannot change a city with things traditional.
You can only truly change a city with service. The Christ was a servant. His preference for worship was always met with his preference for the diseased. A desire for worship, true worship, is a wonderful thing in the hearts of the believers, but woe to us if we believe that change stops when the music dies, and the sermon ends.
I saw service in teenagers, students, some awkward and clumsy, others defiant and direct, and others humble and quiet. And they did more this week for the poorest and the least than most of the adults I know. They are learning service. They are seeing the lives of the poor and the ignored on streets where we would never go. And they have no concern for all of this worship quarrelling. At least not yet. They are just serving. Painting. Sweating. Without dimmed lights and great music. Without flyers and names and times and venues. Without sidewalk preachers and trim suits, and without nice buildings and good coffee. Without modern websites. Without endless hours of debate.
And it was these students, assembled for a week of work and praise, with the penchant for service.
They made a difference in the city. Even when most do not. And it was a beautiful thing.