Learning from Experience

By Hannah Kessler, Partnership Coordinator

One of my biggest passions is being able to educate others on the complex, deeply rooted issues that communities face. These are not cut and dry struggles. They almost always, do not have simple fixes.

This past week I had the pleasure of spending time with two leaders who will be leading their youth group on a mission trip to West Virginia this summer. The Lord has been gracious to me over the last two years, and I’m thankful this visit looked a lot different than the first I ever facilitated a visit similar to this. My first ever pre-trip visit with a youth pastor was within a month of my move to West Virginia, over two years ago. I was hardly acquainted with my new home before there were two strangers there, wondering what their youth group would be doing 6 months down the road.

I had a funny realization during this most recent visit. In some ways I was in the same exact place as two years prior. I moved to Charleston in October (from Rosedale, WV), and because of the fast pace nature of disaster response, there aren’t many projects I can solidify this early in the process. But the difference was the experience of knowing these trips aren’t about the homes. It’s not about the bill of materials and the measurements and what Monday-Friday will look like.

I know this comes as a shock to some, especially those who have worked with me before. I love plans. I love details and fitting them all together and being able to fall asleep at night knowing everything has it’s place and is ready to go. But what it took me a while to figure out, is that plans can never take the place of educating. You see, each state, each community, and each home has a story. We have to ask the question… Why are things the way they are? How did you get to this place? Are we changing the cycle of poverty or just enabling it?

So for this visit there were no projects. Not too many plans. But did we learn.

We met with the Director of the Central WV United Way, and soaked in every word. He spoke with us about West Virginia as a whole. The boom towns, the Greenbrier Hotel, the New River Gorge, the best places to eat in Charleston. He spoke of Marshall University, his alma mater. He told us that he was a Sophomore on November 14, 1970, when a plane crashed into a hill less than 15 miles from campus, killing all 75 people on board. The plane was carrying 37 members of the Marshall University football team, 9 members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters, and 4 flight crew members. John told us when the movie “We Are Marshall” came out years ago, he headed home, along with many of his old friends to watch it in their college town. He shed some tears, and we did too. John loves this state. He is now the acting chairman for the Long-Term Flood Recovery Committee in Clendenin. We spoke about recovery, how it’s going, and how it will continue. John is a man of faith, character, and great care for the people here.

Soon after, we made our way down to Clendenin. As we drove along WV 119 we began seeing the flood affected towns. We talked about the water levels that were in the grocery store as we passed by. We spoke about how homes from the outside may look recovered, but inside they may be vacant. “What do the orange spray painted homes mean? Those will be torn down soon, they were a total loss. Where are people living now? Some with family, some in temporary housing, some in campers you can see in the side yard. Why is the river still so dirty? River clean-up, while important, is not the main concern when people are still without heat during the winter.”

We met with our friend Paul, who survived the flood. The weekend of June 17th, Paul had been released from the hospital after having open heart surgery. Less than a week later, the night of June 23rd, he and his wife were wading through the floodwaters seeking higher ground. They eventually climbed onto a tin overhang from a storefront down the street, and spent the next 20 hours there. A few days after, I found him working on his home, with a big red scar visible through the top of this shirt. After learning his story, I talked with him about letting some of our volunteers help, and he could do a great job as supervisor! He is one of the most hardworking and generous men I have ever met. He’s still working with volunteers to repair his home, 8 months later.

Our last stop of the day was to meet with the pastor of the Clendenin United Methodist Church. Not only was Scott’s church affected by the flood, with over 10 feet of water damage, his home sits directly beside the church. Scott is able to empathize with his neighbors and members of his congregation because he is a flood survivor, too. Scott talked with us about the initial recovery efforts, how those have continued through the year, and some exciting hopes the town has for the future.

These are difficult stories, and the education they bring does not come without emotional cost. They are not cut and dry, with quick fixes; but complexity is not something to shy away from. When we don’t know the exact answers, we hold on to what we do know.

I do know that God is on His throne, and He is making all things new.

I do know that “there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”

I do know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ… “not height nor depth, or anything else in all creation”

Because we can trust Him with the greater, we can also trust Him with the lesser. Even when I don’t know all the plans, I am confident God is with us in this new season in Clendenin, and He will continue to work in and for His people here.

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