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A summer in Memphis

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Weeks 7 & 8: Transforming portraits

It turns out time moves quickly when you spend the summer on rooftops.

Part of my heart feels like we’re just getting started on the houses in Binghampton. My aching knees and stiff muscles say otherwise, however. Part of me wants to hang on to the community I’ve found here. The other part is so excited to use what I’ve learned on the next adventure.

How can you summarize an experience as vast and deep as this one? As I’m staring at this computer screen, I’m finding that you really can’t. What I can do is just give simple portraits of those in Binghampton who have impacted me the most this summer. These are silent and mostly invisible warriors who stood in my life during this summer for love and hope.

The homeowners

 Ross&Sharon

I have this nervous tick where anytime I’m stressed or nervous or puzzled, I play with my ponytail. Those who know me really well know when I start playing with my hair, that’s the time to offer up a helping hand or comforting words. Let’s just say I played with my hair a lot this summer. By week two Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon, the wonderful homeowners on Eva Street that brought me into their home this summer, had my nervous tick down. And just about every other tick about me. Whenever rotten wood seemed unending or campers nailed shingles in upside-down and I started up with my ponytail, Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon were always there to ask me how I was doing and if they could do anything for me. Ms. Sharon’s little grandbaby who lives with them, Nevaeh (heaven spelled backward), could put a smile on everyone’s face like none other. Seeing the way Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon love this precious little girl was a visible picture of the love they gave to me and anyone who stepped into their home.

Nevaeh

Whether a cold drink at the end of a hot day, home-cooked meals or a simple smile and “thank you,” Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon subtlety served me all summer long. At the homeowner banquet SOS hosted after our last week of camp, Mr. Ross told me, “We had a house, but now we have a home.” I didn’t give them a home. SOS didn’t give them a home. But by partnering with this loving family for a summer, I sure found a home in Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon.

SOS extended family 

Isaiah

About once a week this summer I would see a white pickup truck drive up to Mr. Ross’s house. The bed was usually filled with old cans, picked from the street, eventually headed to the recycling center. A Binghampton neighbor, always wearing a T-shirt, suspenders and a soft smile, would drive to nearly all SOS sites on any given week. Mr. Isaiah has been a part of the SOS extended family since a team worked on his home several years ago. My home church played a part in repairing his home that summer and he hasn’t forgotten a single name or face. It seemed like every time it was getting really hard to stay positive or motivated, Mr. Isaiah would drive up, wander over to the side of the roof and say, “Well hello there, Ms. Caroline.” Once he climbed the ladder and was helping my campers tarp a plane of the roof at the end of the day, and I didn’t even notice till they were done.

No matter what, Mr. Isaiah was always willing to provide help or simply a wonderful hug. He is a beautiful picture of the circle of blessings between SOS and the Binghampton community. SOS spent a summer partnering with him on his house and he has not ceased to care about SOS staff members ever since. He told me every week that He was looking out for me. What an amazing picture of overflowing love.

The neighborhood 

Cameron

I saw things this summer that tempted me to despair. I saw broken men hide behind bottles, harmful relationships spill over into fights on porches and lost kids follow what they see before them. This summer has taught me while there is sadness in Binghampton, there is a hope that far overshadows any darkness. Day two of camp, two 13-year-old neighborhood boys came up to the worksite, asking if they could help. Cameron and DeWayne, cousins who live a street apart, are “classic” cases of the neighborhood. Both are growing up without a father. Both have relatives in jail. Both have experienced home violence. And yet, instead of following the examples they’ve had, both chose to spend their entire summer hanging out with me on a hot roof, learning about construction and Jesus. Halfway through the summer, Cameron’s sister, Telera, joined our ranks as well.

It was nothing short of astounding to see these three kids grow and mature over the two months we spent together. They went from being shy and petrified of the roof to being bold and regular roofing champs. Working alongside them taught me a whole lot of patience, but far above all, it taught me that hope, faith and prayer can truly transform hearts, lives, and with persistence, neighborhoods. Though I felt like my role this summer was to teach, the lessons these kids and the neighborhood taught me far outweighed anything I could have offered them.

—–

Tomorrow I will be packing up and leaving the SOS community and Binghampton family for a time. It’s so tempting to wallow in how much I am going to miss these wonderful people who were so beautifully put into my life this summer. But I know I am called instead to great excitement and joy in being able to take all the lessons I’ve learned from Memphis into the great unknown. From Mr. Ross and Ms. Sharon, I’ve learned how to look for ways to serve everyday in the small things, and how to do so with a humble heart. From Mr. Isaiah, I’ve learned love for others does not and should not fade. From those three crazy, amazing neighborhood kids, I’ve learned there is no worldly cycle too strong to be broken. I’ve learned to hope and rejoice in the small victories.

This summer I’ve seen a few people, empowered in light, transform neighborhoods. Our summer staff – more than 40 strong – will disperse into the world, leaving but not forgetting this place that is now a part of us. How exciting is it that we now get to take these lessons to other people and to other places? How incredible it will be to see how the world is transformed.

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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.

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.

Week 2: attic stories

From a summer in Memphis.

Willie Lee Ross’s attic door wasn’t open for ten years straight.

After his mother died, Mr. Ross inherited her house on Eva Street – the house I’m helping to repair with Service Over Self this summer. His mother had lived in that house for most of her life. She had raised 11 children in that house. And Mr. Ross said when that house became his, he just didn’t feel like he could sift through those memories quite yet.

Though Mr. Ross’s attic acted phenomenally as a time vessel, the quality of its old insulation made it a poor protector of his house. So, on Tuesday, a great group of high schoolers from the Memphis suburb of Germantown helped me carry years of Ross history down the attic stairs and out the back door to make way for new insulation.

By lunchtime, there were piles rising high in the backyard grass of framed family photos, yellowing yearbooks and decaying bags of clothing.

As Mr. Ross walked through those isles of memories, he chose which ones he would keep and which ones would join our dumpster of broken wood and dirty shingles.

At the time, I was too worried about figuring out the new instillation to realize how big of a moment this was. Later that day he came up to me to thank me and the Germantown crew once again for cleaning out his attic.

“I know this house is talking to you,” he said to me. “Today, it’s sure been whispering to me.”

And as I thought about that beautiful statement, I was taken by how true it was. Clearing out that attic told a great amount about faces I would never see. It whispered to me reminders of how everything we hold dear from this world will one day collect dust in untouched attics. Removing shingles from the top of Mr. Ross’s roof – poorly laid shingles lacking any sort of tar paper beneath – shouted a story of the damage laziness and greed can bring.

The house has told me every day for the past two weeks that I cannot do this job at all if I rely on my own strength and intelligence. It’s murmured that if you really look, even in brokenness, you can find beauty.

I carried down a photo with a brown and gold trim frame that was brittle from years of rain soaking those memories sitting in the attic. The photo itself was almost too faint, but you could still see the portrait of a woman smiling at the camera. As soon as I set it down outside, Mr. Ross picked it back up. He would later tell me that this was a photo of his mother. But for now, his face simply broke into a giant grin.

Week 1: true service

MrRoss

Willie Lee Ross walks in front of his house on Eva Street. SOS teams (led by me!) are repairing his house throughout the summer.

From a summer in Memphis.

A red brick house on Eva Street in Binghampton stands with a leaky roof and a sign in front of it sporting the letters “SOS”.

SOS – Service Over Self.

Those word stand for the nonprofit I’m working for this summer. But what do they really mean? What does “service” mean to my generation in American society? Do we ever genuinely “serve over ourselves?”

You see, I see this problem growing every spring break and every summer. I’ve even been a part of this problem. It’s a problem of young people spending a week of their year “serving” the “less fortunate” and then retreating right back to their comfortable way of living.

Let’s first clarify the word “service.” It is not synonymous with pitying. It is not some gift the rich bestow on the poor. And merely being a warm body on your mission or service trip – as in just going along for the ride because that’s what your friends are doing or to spice up your résumé – certainly doesn’t count as service. Instagraming a photo of the houses in Binghampton with a Bible verse as a caption does not equate to picking up a hammer and attempting to improve the qualify of life for people in that area. True service isn’t interested in making you look good.

And, incredibly, true service is what I saw reflected in so many people this past week. Campers from eight churches joined the SOS summer staff for our first week of camp, which mostly consisted of deshingling roofs under a hot Memphis sun. Granted, some campers viewed service as showing up in Memphis but checking out at the worksite. That was me once, and Lord knows that’s unavoidable so long as apathy and lazyness are still alive and well.

But what really excited and encouraged me were the kids who didn’t show up so they could humble brag on Facebook about how they single-handily saved inner-city Memphis. Instead, these kids showed up, not to make themselves look good, but to serve with gentle, genuine and humble hearts.

What I hope week one of camp showed these kids, and what it certainly showed me, is that we are called to serve everyone because we are called to love everyone. Service is synonymous with love. When I view service in that sense, I cease to see it as a gift only “wealthy” folks can give. I cease to see it as one week or one summer out of my year. Living in service becomes a lifestyle I can lead everyday.

I see service as a call to love others, who are just as broken as I am, as closely as I can to the way Christ loves me. I choose to serve over myself, because I am able to recognize ever so slightly that I’m not the most important person in my story. And thank God for that.

Campers just arrived here in the Bing for week two. More roofing, lessons and challenges are no doubt in store as the summer continues to pick up steam. And I have no doubt this week will bring more living and breathing examples of what true service means.

One abandoned lot at a time

From a summer in Memphis.

Three houses sit on Princeton Avenue in the inner-city Memphis neighborhood of Binghampton.

Three houses, with porch swings and well-kept yards, sit on what used to be abandoned lots, filled to the waist with grass and broken bottles.

This street is a small picture of a movement that has been playing out across Binghampton for the past ten years.

Families, which have been predominately young and white, are moving into and building houses in a neighborhood, which has been predominately poor and black.

But Binghampton was not always this way. The neighborhood that now sits in the center of a sprawling city had a strong economy built on lumber mills in the early 1900s. Railroad tracks were laid out that cut the neighborhood into two — one side to the east and one to the west. As Memphis traversed through economic recessions and the civil rights movement, Binghampton grew poorer and poorer.

In the ’70s, refugees from all over the world began relocating to the west side. Today, one-third of the people you’ll find in west Bing are from Sudan, Afganistan, Somalia and many other war-torn places. On the east side, 99.9 percent of the people you’ll find  are African-American.

Nathan Cook of Christ Community Ministries spoke to me and other SOS interns about the history of Binghampton, highlighting the community’s brokenness. Lester School, a Bing middle school, has had the lowest test scores in the state of Tennessee. Cook said just eight percent of the entire school was on grade level. The elementary has since been converted to a charter school, a decision met by much public outcry.

If the education system is the platform from which young men and women get their spring into society, then the education system in Binghampton is clear evidence of the cycle of poverty that has had a grip on the community for generations.

So, my question is — do we really believe that cycle can be broken? After this week in SOS staff training, I chose optimism and believe it can. But what I’ve also learned is it won’t be broken easily or quickly.

Princeton Avenue is a perfect example of this. As part of our training for the urban homecare camp we’ll be apart of this summer, the SOS summer staff got to spend some time with families that have moved into the Binghampton area with the hope of furthering it’s revitalization.

I got to hang out in the living room of the Perrys, who are raising their three children in a lovely house they built on Princeton. I could write a whole separate post on this visit, but what I’ll say is this — the Perrys moved into Binghampton with a kingdom mentality. Seeing the cycle of poverty being perpetuated everyday is incredibly hard and discouraging, but the Perrys have hope that by offering  up their lives as an example, things might start to change. Change won’t come quickly, maybe even not in their lifetimes, but that’s not stopping the Perrys from living in community with their neighbors, getting to know them and helping them as best they can.

And the Perrys are just one of about 100 families that have moved into this inner-city neighborhood of Memphis.

As I look to camp starting at SOS next week, I’m incredibly exciting about finally becoming a small part of this community I’ve learned so much about. Stories like the Perrys restore my hope that rejuvenation is happening in poverty-stricken places in our world, one abandoned lot at a time.

Binghampton

From a summer in Memphis.

I remember the last time I stolled the streets of Binghampton. I was in high school on my fourth mission trip with Service Over Self (SOS). My church group and I had crossed the state line to spend a week serving in one of the most well-known, and also one of the poorest, neighborhoods in Memphis. I remember looking at our homeowner’s house for the last time as our van pulled away, taking a moment to admire the new shingles that would now keep the home safe and dry.

I remember this feeling. Kind of that inner swell you feel when your dad smiles at you after your team won a softball game or when you walk across the stage at your high school graduation and feel the joy of your family and friends pushing you forward. It was kind of like that, but I don’t think it was pride in a job well done. No, I think that emotion I felt driving away from a community that is being revitalized shingle by shingle comes from the knowledge I, in a small way, helped further a mission far bigger than myself.

Tomorrow, I’ll find myself on the sidewalks of Binghampton again. I’ll be one of 45 college students working full time at SOS this summer, a job I have been dreaming of since junior high. I’ll be working on one house and with one homeowner in the Binghampton community throughout the summer to transform the neighborhood and empower the people in it.

I still can’t believe they hired me. I’m incredibly nervous. But I also feel that same swell again. You see, Binghampton is a broken spot right in the heart of Memphis. It has been for a while. But SOS and others who feel the call are working with the community to change that. Sure, this summer I’ll be working to give someone in Binghampton a roof that doesn’t leak, windows that aren’t broken and a foundation that won’t shake. But more than that, I’ll be putting all I am into one small part of this beautiful, incredibly large picture that’s unfolding.

By building relationships with the people of Binghampton, I get the amazing opportunity to help them revitalize their community. In return, they and everyone I encounter through SOS will teach me more about humility, faith and hope than I have ever learned. I’m incredibly blessed to call Binghampton my home for the summer. I can’t wait to walk on those streets come tomorrow.

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