A dozen students from Old Dominion University and four staff members from the Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM) spent the first week of March in McKee, Kentucky, on a mission trip. It was the first such Alternative Spring Break, or ASB, trip for the Catholic ministry at ODU in recent memory.
Home base for the trip was the Catholic parish of St. Paul’s in McKee. The tiny parish – technically a mission – is the only Catholic Church in Jackson County, and serves fewer than 50 families. The students celebrated Mass with the parish on several occasions during the week and enjoyed a potluck dinner with residents after arriving on Sunday. The students made their home at the dormitory facilities of the Christian Appalachian Project, a non-denominational Christian organization serving people in need in Appalachia.
ASB trips take many forms; the ODU trip was built primarily around service to the local community in Jackson County. The students worked on a number of projects over the course of the week, including hauling gravel and digging trenches at the site of a soon-to-be-opened community park; assisting several residents with repair projects in their homes; and cleaning, painting and building shelves at “The Attic”, the thrift shop run by St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
The ODU group arrived in Kentucky only a few days after devastating tornadoes ripped through nearby areas of the state. Jackson County was spared, but East Bernstadt in Laurel County, just south of Jackson, was the site of one of the deadly storms. The students joined the clean-up efforts in East Bernstadt on Tuesday, helping to clear debris from a neighborhood, including a small cemetery. It was an emotional day for all: it was gratifying to help where there was clearly so much need, but also humbling to witness first-hand the blind destruction of the storms.
The students also had opportunities to get to know the local residents. One of the tenets of Catholic social justice teaching is the dignity of the person. ODU students spent time the residents – in their homes, at the County’s senior day care center, and at the local community rec center – hanging out, meeting their families, and hearing their stories. The students relayed later that some of the most poignant and profound moments from the trip were those spent not in service but in conversation. Thanks to these opportunities for interaction students were no longer serving “the poor” but were now serving their new friends.
The trip was organized by the CCM, so of course spirituality was a key aspect of the week. The students celebrated daily Mass together and started and ended every day together in prayer. Several students and staff members also prepared talks based on 1 John 3:11: “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: we should love one another. . . .”
No ASB trip is complete without a little fun! The ODU students enjoyed two hikes in the Appalachian Mountains, where the first dots of spring color were beginning to appear. They also spent a day in nearby Berea, Kentucky, home of the eponymous college and also a regional center for arts and crafts. And who doesn’t love s’mores by a campfire in the middle of the forest, gazing up at the impossible number of stars visible in the clear night sky?
The trip was a great success for everyone. The opportunity to experience God through service, prayer and nature inspired the students and the staff alike. The students are already talking about next year’s trip. The CCM staff members are excited to see that several of the students on the trip are now more actively involved in CCM programs since they returned from McKee. All are confident that the first ODU ASB trip in many years will be the start of a great new tradition in the Catholic Campus Ministry!