On “Day One” of their “Hands & Feet” mission trip to St. Louis, thirteen Presbyterians from southeastern Iowa spent the morning shoveling compost at an urban garden.
“Most of us were older—in our 60s, 70s, even 80s,” says Lynn Ellsworth, one of the volunteers. “We did some really hard physical labor. But everybody worked together, and it felt good to be doing service for others.”
By afternoon, when their bodies were ready to quit, group members kept asking each other, “Can we work another half hour?” And then they did.
“We all made it and felt good about the work we’d done,” Ellsworth says.
The Presbytery of East Iowa mission team, which visited St. Louis November 2–5, is one of numerous groups expected to head to the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy over the next seven months as part of an initiative called “Hands & Feet” leading up to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) next June.
The goal of the Hands & Feet initiative is to strengthen local and national mission efforts of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by encouraging partnerships and mission involvement with cities hosting the biennial meeting of the General Assembly.
J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, envisions Hands & Feet as a way for Presbyterians participating in General Assemblies to contribute to the welfare of the host community in ways that go beyond spending money in hotels and restaurants and sightseeing venues.
Over a three-day period, the Iowa team contributed in a variety of ways. The compost they shoveled helped prepare the land for next season’s planting at Global Farms, a venture of the International Institute of St. Louis. The farms, located only ten minutes from downtown St. Louis, offer space for refugees and immigrants to learn about agriculture in the Midwest while growing food to sell at farmers’ markets and feed their families.
On “Day Two” of their visit, the Iowans hit the streets to serve as route marshals for a 5K run benefiting the Cornerstone Center for Early Learning, an education and daycare program for low-income children.
That afternoon, they packed about 500 boxes of Christmas items for distribution to children by the Board of Religious Organizations and affiliated agencies. On their final day, Sunday, they worshiped at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church.
Sarah Hegar, networking associate for the Presbytery of East Iowa and leader of the mission team, says she was “extremely impressed” by how local hosts developed an itinerary to meet her group’s needs. “I had to do very little with organizing the work sites,” she says. “We had plenty of work to do—work that was making a difference.”
Hegar’s team was hosted by AMEN St. Louis (A Ministry Embracing the Neighborhood), a ministry of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church that coordinates mission experiences for visiting groups.
AMEN’s director, Jillian Embrey, says the ministry has developed partnerships with some twenty-five community organizations in order to provide meaningful service experiences for volunteers. “We want to make sure the work they do is really serving a need in the city and is not just busywork.”
For Hegar and Ellsworth, one of the most meaningful parts of their visit was participating in a Sacred Conversation on Race led by Korla Masters, student pastor of Oak Hill Church. These ongoing “conversations” are based on workshops with congregations following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Learning about the history of St. Louis and the current challenges around racial issues “set the tone” for her group’s mission trip experience, Hegar says. “It gave us more insight into the work we were doing.”
Embrey says the Sacred Conversations have been expanded to include focuses on poverty, hunger, and incarceration/prison reform.
“We are very intentional about pairing service work with education,” she explains. “We believe it’s important that groups don’t just come in and pack a box for a food pantry, but that they learn about poverty and race and other issues in St. Louis to get a more comprehensive idea of the work they are doing.”
The Iowa team included members of First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, where Hegar’s husband is pastor, and First United Presbyterian Church in Mediapolis, where Hegar serves as pulpit supply.
“For many of our group, this was their very first mission trip,” Hegar says. “It was the perfect way for them to get their feet wet.”
Because her job with the Presbytery of East Iowa involves building connections among congregations, Hegar was delighted to observe the bonds that developed among members of the two churches during their time in St. Louis. Now, she and others in the presbytery are talking about doing a multi-congregation mission trip next spring to help with hurricane recovery in Houston.
Hands & Feet also has helped folks in her little corner of Iowa feel more connected with the PC(USA), Hegar says. “Our group appreciated knowing they were doing something in relationship to the denomination. They were glad to be part of the larger church in this mission.”