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Weeks 5&6: tea lessons

From a summer in Memphis. 

The best parts in my day revolve around Lipton green tea of the citrus variety.

Normally this wouldn’t be my drink of choice, but at the end of a long day ripping up floorboards or repairing roofs, that little green drink is a glimpse of majesty.

You see, everyday as I finish putting up tools and rounding up campers, my homeowner, Mr. Ross, grabs a Lipton from a fridge and hands it to me. He ushers me into a chair in his living room, knowing full well that I’m covered from head to toe in shingle grit and chimney soot. Once he even got his revolving fan out of his bedroom, plugged it in and turned its breeze right at me.

One day in particular I remember feeling uncomfortable under his graciousness, knowing full well I gave in that day to weariness and frustration. I felt undeserving of that cold tea, yet Mr. Ross handed me that bottle out of the fridge without question. There was no debate in his mind. What a beautiful picture of grace.

On that same afternoon, Mr. Ross and I spent some time chatting about our team members for the week as I waited for my ride back to the SOS building. They were a hard-working, motivated crew from the very Methodist church that launched SOS 27 years ago. Mr. Ross said with a half-smile, “I see you working up there, Caroline. They work hard, but I don’t see anybody pushing like you do.”

In that moment, I felt the guilt of not living up to that praise. That day I hadn’t pushed hard. That day I let the weight of the summer and the sun keep me from making my worksite what it can be. That day I tried to carry myself, and you’d think I’d know by now that never works.

Now, as I reflect on his words, I can’t help but hope that Mr. Ross sees me as that kind of leader. I can’t help but hope to be that kind of leader daily.

This summer has taught me an exceptional amount, and one of the chief lessons revolves around the idea of leadership. SOS has redefined for me what it means to lead — with authority in one hand and humility in the other. Here are some snapshots:

  • Acting like you have it all together, especially when you don’t, will not make people respect you.
  • When things are going well, look at others; when things are going poorly, look right at yourself.
  • Only arrogant leaders refuse to ask for help.
  • Asking for constructive feedback is the mark of a leader who truly wants to lead better.
  • Servant leadership means you never demand respect or authority, but that you use the position bestowed on you to build up the people around you.

My time at SOS is winding down. I have only two more weeks of camp to finish shingling a gigantic part of the roof, rebuild a portion of the roof above the porch and finish several structural projects inside. Just typing that sentence made my blood pressure rise to deep-fried donut level. And yet, I feel peace as I type this sentence, resting the knowledge that if I was leading this endeavor alone, I would absolutely fail.

And I’m not alone. From my campers’ laughter to Lipton green teas to breezes on the roof in the heat of the day, I’m reminded over and over again that I am not alone. I’m reminded over and over again that leading first starts with setting the highest standard possible for yourself and trusting your team to follow. This summer has proven to me that they will.

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Weeks 3 & 4: a story high

Elevate a story high and your perspective totally changes.

When I view Eva Street from the ground level, I see trash on curbs and windows with cracks.

I see an older man weaving down the block with a bottle hidden behind a brown paper sack; his sidesteps revealing that what is inside definitely isn’t Diet Coke. Soon after comes a young woman, leading her two young children to a church that offers free lunch. Soon after comes three teenage boys, swearing and pushing one another, acting the way they’ve been shown.

Now, raise up a story. As I sit on Mr. Ross’s roof, I see much more than just the brokenness of the street.

I see three neighborhood kids – DeWayne, Cameron and Telera – who asked me if they could spend their summer working with me on this hot roof. I see a choice these kids make – show up every morning at 8 a.m. to have “Miss Caroline” boss them around when they could join their friends on the stoop just across Eva. The roof offers a chance to discover what hard work and a purist of God looks like, in contract to the easy path of apathy and hopelessness that the street offers.

I see my crew of campers for week 4 — two middle schoolers, one high schooler and one adult leader from a small coal town in Kentucky. I see the bond they’re forming with these neighborhood kids — I see the lessons being exchanged.

I see my own misconceptions, my own pride, being broken down. What is it with our society’s obsession with perfection? Why do we have so many misconceptions about strength? I’m told over and over again by media and Hollywood that I’m supposed to have it all together and I’m supposed to have everything I want. I’m taught that to ask for help is to show weakness and to show weakness is to fail. And to fail is to lose your worth.

Why is it so uncommon to name the struggles your going through, to name your imperfections? How many times this week and the three before it have I lied to campers and fellow staff members when they asked me how I’m doing. “Fine,” I say. Or maybe even, “I’m doing really well.” Why is it so hard for me to say, “I’m feeling really weary today, but goodness isn’t it awesome to see the way God is working through my weakness to restore my strength.”

If I’m not owning up to my weaknesses, aren’t I just being fake? At what point do I finally realize that I am in fact not super woman and I was never called to be? When will I start owning my flaws? When will I stop regurgitating rehearsed answers to rehearsed questions that really mean nothing? When will we all finally realize that it’s only in our weaknesses that we are ever truly strong?

And yet on this roof, I don’t count my weaknesses as failures. When I’m frustrated and weary, I don’t see my pride. I call for help, God answers and once again I’m reminded that in weakness — in the weakness of my own heart and the weakness poverty brings to this street — a strength far bigger than us is revealed.

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