Me vs. Them does not equal We.

Last Sunday I attended one of the roof-top feast extravaganzas my friends over and Bushwick Department of Public Works throw. While there I met 0H10M1KE, or "OhioMike", an artist who spent some time doing social work with AmeriCorps in southeast Ohio. We started talking about this project and as I expressed my desire to avoid being seen as a voyeur or missionary, he cut me off and said "But thats exactly what you are! And the sooner you accept it, the better for you and them." Harsh words. But, I think they are probably true.

Many people who know the Appalachian culture (and some who don't, but know hollywood) have warned me that the people are insular and no one will trust me, and "Ha, good luck with that". I admit that, yes, the Appalachian people are wary of "outsiders". They are proud, independent, and determined for preservation. And, looking at the history of the region, the ongoing failure of governmental programs, and the exploitation by many big business (energy) corporations, who can really blame them? Even in that characterization are a million and one unfair assumptions. I know this makes the job of anyone coming from the outside harder, but those traits are precisely what I am attracted to and see also in myself. Determination, even stubbornness. (When I am complaining in 3-4 months, feel free to refer me back to my own profession here.)

Merriam-Webster defines a voyeur as "a prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous". I admit my project walks the line of that. It would be easy to roll into a town like Ansted and paint a picture of good vs. bad. Small town against big uncaring coal. But I believe stopping to say, "Wait, I just want to listen to you" instead of, "Here's what we can accomplish this week..." will lead to something different, unplannable and better. I am more interested in accurate characterization of who is fighting, than the resolution of the MTR conflict. I care, but more about the people and what they are feeling. Nothing is going to change anyway if everyone is just pissed off at each other.

The whole thing has gotten me thinking about the nature of this project, and "working for change". I want to accomplish something. But the more definition I give that something, the further I am from it. By leaving the goal open, whatever comes my way becomes acceptable and valuable, and the experiences I have are reason enough for a seven-day road trip. In a lot of ways it's really selfish, to be sure. But I am making my peace. If you know me even moderately well, you know what I do is DO. I have a project-based personality, and when I set myself to get something done, I get it done, and do it well. It's work ethic. Having a concrete goal for the trip is attractive to me. Then, at the end I can look at what I did and see that I succeed or failed. I have a set of recordings or I don't. But, sometimes I get so dug in, I don't leave room to listen if God is even there. Taking this week in Appalachia will be a different sort of challenge. Pursuing a general notion or gut feeling that I am supposed to travel and JUST listen, is very scary for me. But I am getting closer.

I am excited to just get out of the city. I want to see new terrain and experience new things. I love to drive. I love to drive pickup trucks. I want to DO a lot on this trip. Meet a few people, record stories, fight injustice, save the world. But, instead, for this one week, I am going to try and intentionally not do anything leading to anything bigger. I want to see stuff, smoke a cigar, ride a horse, forget Manhattan, swim. If nothing else, it's a refueling. At the end I can say, I am still exhausted, or I am not. And, you know, I think I am okay with that.

This is big for me because I am, by nature, a Martha. I'm going to try and be a Mary.

The story of Martha and Mary is one of those I never fail to walk away from convicted. Jesus and his buddies are going along and stop at this village where these two sisters live who say they will host the guys for dinner. Martha is the one who actually invites them and then gets to the cleaning, cooking, and everything else that goes into being a good hostess. While she's busting her butt, sweating for sure, her sister Mary is sitting on the ground listening to Jesus talk. Every time I hear this story imagine Mary with her head tilted to the side and her eyes really wide and shiny, a little like a puppy. I guess that betrays who I relate to.
So Martha takes Jesus aside and said, "Lord, I'm the one doing all the work and that bum is just sitting there! She'll listen to you; tell her to get up off her kiester and help!"
Instead, Jesus sees right through it and says, "Martha, chill out for a second. You are clearly upset and worried about a lot, but you really just need one thing. To sit down and be with me! Mary is right on this one, I'd rather hang out and eat hot dogs and cold baked beans than get the filet minion and not see you."

Mary had a mission. But it became HER mission. She was no longer motivated by serving the Lord, but serving her mission. Goals are not a bad thing by any means. But, though the guidance counselors out there hate to hear me say it, from a Christian perspective, I think short term goals can become distracting from the greater mission: to praise God and glorify his Holy Name. At least for me, I become so focused on getting something done and doing it with excellence, that I forget the entire reason that I am doing it for the first place. For example, I have been working all these late hours working on the website for the church I work at. Web design and html are not things I am inclined to, skilled at, or enjoy, but I have been so adamant about doing this efficiently and skillfully that I have been working myself into a stressed-out bomb, ready to be triggered by just about anything that bumps into me. It wasn't until yesterday when I hit a wall, and hard, that I came back to reality and remembered that the commandments don't say "thou shall meet thy deadline" and Jesus didn't say "Blessed are the efficient." It was more important for me to go out for $2 margarita happy hour at Brother Jimmy's BBQ and be with my brother and sister in Christ, than log three more hours on a behemoth of a project. Jesus says, "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." Being with Jesus is more important than hospitality, websites, and even evangelism. It is out time with Jesus that prepares us and motivates for these things. Any other order inevitably just makes you a pissed-off-Martha.

OhioMike was right. I am an outsider. There is no way that will ever change. He told me of someone that moved to the small town he was working out of when he was 4 years old. That man had remarked that he was still treated like an outsider even after all the years, into midlife. It would be both pretentious and unrealistic to think that I am going to be accepted as an honorary member into the circle in one week, and as hard as I work, I probably never will be. The truth is, I will undoubtedly gain more than I will give. Despite how deeply anchored this trip is in my faith, my belief that we are charged with the care of the earth and each other, my desire to give something back, I have not been looking at this as a missions trip. If it was, I would obviously have a color-coordinated t-shirt, and more of a plan than an approximate driving itinerary putting me in a new town just about every night. I have serious reservations about the benefits of short term missions, but the strongest argument in favor is the selfish one. Sometimes the "missionary" becomes the one who is changed. A short term mission can open someone's eyes and mind, maybe even propelling them forward to greater action. The value of a mission can't be measured by what is accomplished in one week, but can only be revealed by a long view of the situation.

I have peace with this being a foundation for something more. I think that I am so relaxed about goals for this particular trip because in my mind and heart I am already committed to a long term experience. I don't know what my relationship to the environmental community will be in a year or ten, but I know I don't have to get everythinig done right now.

As hard as it was to initially hear, Mike did say, "the sooner you accept it, the better for you and them". Me and Them. Whoever "them" is, I do have the ability to be a human in relationships, not just an intrusive robotic force coming to take over the earth and, you know, do stuff. I am so ready to get-my-Mary-on.