(Editor’s note: The following homily by Deacon David Montgomery of St. Mary Parish in Oxford reflects on a recent mission trip to the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky.)
By Deacon David Montgomery
It was dark when we pulled into the parking lot of the school in David, Ky. The seventh mission trip to the Appalachians of eastern Kentucky took a couple of hours longer than the usual 13 hours. Our group from St. Mary’s of four adults and four youths picked up two other Iowa groups along the way: four adults and eight youths from St. James Parish, Washington, and three adults with five youths from the clustered parishes of St. Boniface, Farmington, and St. Mary, West Point.
The long trip was just the beginning of a series of obstacles we met throughout the week. One vehicle was losing oil at a rate of one and then two quarts every 100 miles. Another vehicle had a flat tire that had to be replaced and later lost air conditioning. Even the weather didn’t cooperate. Although it was as hot in Kentucky as it was here, the humidity was far worse. There was no shortage of rain, but we did feel the absence of Elmer, the volunteer supervisor who helped plan and organize the work of home repair volunteers for the past 12 years. He retired this year.
These obstacles didn’t break our spirit. We went to do a job, to help the poor in the poorest areas of the country and we succeeded beyond our expectations.
The usual one or two job sites expanded to five. At the Mt. Tabor Benedictine Monastery, 120 outdoor stairs were repaired and stained. At the St. Vincent Mission we stained two flights of stairs and a ramp, poured concrete, landscaped and organized materials. At the David School, landscaping was done and classrooms were cleaned. A lot of work was completed to repair and improve the David Community Development Corporation building where the interior was cleaned and painted and the roofing fascia and soffits were replaced and painted. After 15 years of inactivity, the building is now ready for a new life serving the people of David as the community center. At the home of Hershel and Genevieve Jones in Garrett, the roof and flooring was repaired and a 50-foot handicapped accessible ramp was constructed.
It was easy to be discouraged during the long and challenging week. Obstacles continued to mount: a low tire on the truck that was loaded with supplies; the need for tools at one site that were being used at another site; the constant resupplying of materials that called for numerous trips into town a half-hour drive away (everything is a half-hour drive away) that Elmer used to take care of and the poison ivy that added to the constant bee stings. The insects in Kentucky consumed Raid for breakfast, coughed a few times and kept coming. And then there was “the cliff,” the road from the highway to the Jones’ house. To enter the road, you had to drive between a break in the guard rail of the mountain highway. That was the first indication of things to come. As the vehicle passed through this break, you could no longer see the road because it dropped 45 degrees for a distance of about 50 feet before turning away from another short cliff next to the railroad tracks. I was the only one allowed to drive this ride. The return trip up the cliff to the highway wasn’t any better. The slope was so steep that anything not tied down on the vehicle’s dash ended up against that rear window. As I took people up and down the cliff prayers of all different kinds ascended to heaven.
Obstacles in meeting the needs of others aren’t new. In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus points out to Philip the need to feed the people who had followed them to the mountain near the Sea of Galilee. Philip’s response was familiar to us. How can we feed 5,000 people? How can we possibly meet their needs? In other words, we can’t help because the obstacle is too big for us to handle.
Then Andrew found someone among them who had something to give, a boy who had five barley loaves and a couple of fish. These gifts that were created by God were returned as an offering to God who took the gift, blessed it and distributed it to the people in need. All were fed with 12 baskets of bread left over. This is more than a matter of logistics and the distribution of available materials by sharing.
We are reminded of this at every Mass. The gifts of bread and wine created by God and worked by human hands are brought forward and offered to God. These gifts are transformed into the body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit to be spiritual food for all who seek it, recognizing their need to be fed by Jesus Christ.
We face many obstacles in meeting the needs of others. Some obstacles are small; some are so large that we can’t deal with them. But by working together to apply our gifts, to find the boy with the bread and fish, we can meet the needs of those who suffer the most knowing that the gifts from God that are offered to God for his blessing are returned to us multiplied many times over. As we are reminded today by the psalmist, “The hand of the Lord feeds us and fills all our needs.”
Reflections on Appalachian service trip
Youths and adults from St. Mary Parish, Oxford; St. James Parish, Washington; St. Boniface Parish, Farmington; and St. Mary Parish, West Point, participated in a recent service trip to the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky. Here are reflections from some of the participants:
Maddie Hora, St. James, Washington
I loved this mission; it took me a while to realize how big of a difference I was making in the community, but after I realized that I felt really good about myself. I loved helping at the community center and making it usable for the town. I also loved making many new friends and seeing how the trip changed their lives. I also liked our prayer time at night. It was really inspirational, from laughing to crying. Our reflection made a difference to everyone.
Mary Kate Horak, St. James, Washington
We stepped out of our comfort zone into a rickety van for a 12-hour trip to David, Ky. Though our trip was filled with many unexpected obstacles, our hard work was truly worth the hugs and toothy grins we received from an elderly couple we helped. They now have a ramp built by many hands of God’s children.
Lauren Baker, St. James, Washington
I think it is incredible that a group of teenagers who didn’t know each other came together to serve the Lord and accomplish so much! This mission trip was a truly amazing experience that I will never forget!!
Sarah Altenhofen, St. James, Washington
It was incredible to see the ripple effect from what we did and how far our actions reached. I think it helped us realize that we all have a purpose and that God has a special plan for each of us.
Chris Vance, St. Mary, Oxford
I was inspired watching 18 youths from four parishes work together, live together, pray together and become a close-knit group — seeing the pride they had when they worked together and accomplished a common goal serving the poor in Kentucky.
Alec Linnenbrink, St. Mary, Oxford
This was my third mission trip to Kentucky. I think this trip in a short time was one of the best groups we had, spiritually. Even with all the mishaps, which were many, I am still proud of everything we accomplished. I hope everyone comes back next year and invites others to join us, to make a difference in other people’s lives.