I've just come home from a mission trip to West Virginia. It's been a long time since I have done something like this – load up a caravan of cars filled with suitcases, pillows, sleeping bags, donated items needed for the work yet to be determined and snacks – lots of snacks. In fact, I believe peanut M&Ms literally sustained me over the past six days. (They're really trail mix if you think about it.)
I joined ten others ranging in age from 13 – 50-something in a caravan to Gary, WV. I had never been to West Virginia, except to drive through on the way to somewhere else. I had never driven deep into the luscious green trees interrupted by windy, single lane roads that look and feel more like long driveways. I had never heard the unique drawl of folks from West Virginia, which is sweet to the ear and slow – oh, so slow – when compared to the rapid fire to which my mind was accustomed.
On our first night we met an endearing man who greeted us with enthusiasm. I believe he was an individual on the autism spectrum, which to me means that his mind was created with more space for information, for wonder, for relationship. He listened to every word and repeated it. “You from New Jersey. Where bout?” “You from Kendall Park, New Jersey, Kendall Park. Where's that?” “You from Kendall Park, New Jersey. Right between Philadelphia and New York City.”
He had committed us to memory. We met others with the similar slow drawl, not quite as unique as our first friend. But the pace, and the intentionality with which we would speak and listen, was the pace at which we would live our life for the next six days. This pace... I believe it saved me.
And there was space for me - a twin bed in a building that was more abandoned than it was re-purposed. The first night I fell asleep in a hot, sticky room while the lights were still on, the conversation of my teammates continued to buzz around me. But when I woke, I immediately realized that my body had finally shut down and was beginning a full system reboot.
This new place, with its slow pace and welcoming people – it's green, expansive trees towering around and above us – this new place was able to shut me down. My mind, body and spirit would reboot at the pace of the slow drawl of this foreign land. My mind would tune to a new frequency, my ears would learn to process differently, my muscles would unwind, my breath would deepen. Over the next six days, this foreign place dug through my worry - removed files, categorized experiences, negotiated memories and filed them all appropriately.
On the ride home last night, when we were punchy from lack of sleep and longing for our clean beds in our air conditioned homes, we found ourselves imitating that first person who had greeted us with enthusiasm – who had listened and committed to memory who we were. His voice was sweet on our tongues as we turn his phrases with his unique drawl. They say, imitation is the best form of flattery and it was true last night. It was flattery with bits of reverence as we tried to sound like him. Our mouths and our tongues and our vocal chords were committing him to memory. And by committing him to memory, we were creating a forever file of the day when he committed us to memory.
I can't speak for the rest of my team but I have committed him to memory because it was his welcome that set in motion a process of salvation for which I am so deeply grateful.