J Robert Parks

My Week of Service Reflection

Keith has been encouraging me to come down to Good Works ever since we met several years ago at Cornerstone. I knew from how he described Good Works, and from Keith himself, that it wasn’t a typical ministry. But I had a difficult time picturing what it was actually like. Not only had I never been to Appalachia, but I didn’t even realize the Athens area was mostly rural until I started looking at the Good Works website.

The application process was my first indication that things would be quite different. I assumed I’d just have to fill out a couple forms, so I was surprised at how extensive a process it is. It’s been a long time since I needed three recommendations and had to answer so many questions. One thing I like about the process is that it forced me to not only take it seriously but also consider exactly why I was going and what I expected to contribute. I realized when Paul and I talked on the phone that the application was also designed to enhance my experience in Athens—by making it easier for Good Works to facilitate a week that would fit both my skills and my abilities. The very fact that I was encouraged (required?) to read the mission statement and how Good Works sees itself as a Christian ministry to the poor was also helpful, though I will say that it is an exceedingly long document. I can see why you might want to have that available for people (especially donors or churches) to see, but it felt like a slog to get all the way to the end.

I really appreciated my phone interview with Paul and the series of emails he and I exchanged before I came. It was nice to know that Good Works was taking my visit so seriously and wanted to make sure that it was a good experience for me. That was continuously affirmed throughout the week I was there, but it wasn’t quite what I expected before the phone conversation.

When I arrived at Good Works, I wasn’t sure where to go, so I headed to (what I now know is) the administration building. Chris was exceedingly friendly. He could’ve easily just pointed to the big house, but instead he walked me across the parking lot and insisted on carrying my heavy suitcase into the house and up to my room. I suspect Chris saw this as a very small thing, but it was meaningful to me. As I get a bit older, it’s not always easy to carry my suitcase all over the place (especially on the rocky parking lot), and I was genuinely grateful for his help and for his dropping what he was doing and helping to welcome me.

I really love the Good Works property. As I wrote in my journal, The buildings function so organically together, but they also have big yards with picnic tables and places for kids to play and an amphitheater. It’s such a welcoming environment that invites me to be outside and experience things. That’s also true of the trails, the river, and the cabin. It’s a wonderful public space and one that fits well with Good Works’ mission.

That first day (Monday) was a great day of just getting to know people, such as Stephen and Paul. Because I arrived a bit earlier than expected, I had some time to sit outside and read. And it was so nice how many people came up and just talked with me for a while. By the end of the week, I was used to people not worrying about time and just engaging with me. But on Monday, that still felt a bit strange to this Chicago native. I kept wondering, it’s great to talk with everyone but don’t they have work to do?

This is as good a time as any to talk about the ‘ethic of inefficiency.’ I talked about this with several people while I was in Ohio, as it struck me with great force, and it’s something I’ve continued to ponder since I got back to Chicago. On Tuesday, Paul was supposed to take me on a tour of the property, which would also function as an introduction to the various ministries Good Works is involved in. Unfortunately (or fortunately, actually), Paul had another meeting at the time we were supposed to get together. So he asked Emily if she’d give me the tour. This was a great way to get to know Emily, and she gave a wonderful tour, explaining various things about the organization, introducing me to people and giving me a sense of what they do, and just spending time with me. After quite a while, I started feeling a bit self-conscious. I knew that Emily had been doing something before she got drafted to give me a tour, and I was afraid that I was keeping her from things she had to do. So I offered her a chance to end the tour. Then she told me about the “ethic of inefficiency,” which says that relationships must always be prioritized over work, and that we don’t strive for the most efficient way to do something. Rather, to be inefficient is often more important if it frees us to be human and interact with each other. As she described this, so much about Good Works clicked into place. I understood why people take the time, and take it consistently, to stop what they’re doing and engage with other people. That’s part of what we do, or at least what we need to do.

I can honestly say I had never thought of such a thing before—about inefficiency (or the reprioritization downward of efficiency) being a primary goal. Suddenly, not only Emily’s behavior but how everyone at Good Works had interacted with me came into much sharper focus. I could see that they were deeply interested in me (and everyone they come in contact with), and that establishing and deepening that relationship was central to the organization’s mission. It was genuinely eye-opening for me, particularly coming from an environment where efficiency and getting things done are far more important than the relationships around me. For me, I see this as one of Good Works’ greatest gifts and attributes, the way in which it values relationships and how it communicates, through that, to the people it serves.

Back to Monday. My one activity on the schedule was spending the evening at Timothy House. I really appreciate Paul scheduling me at Timothy House all four evenings. It made for long days on Wednesday and Thursday, but I was able to spend a lot of time with the guys in the house and get to know a couple of them pretty well. I’ve done this kind of ministry before, so it was no surprise to me that the residents were feeling me out the first night. But when I came back evening after evening, they realized I was interested in them and started to become more comfortable. I got to know the resident Kevin particularly well. We had an interesting experience towards the end of the week. On Wednesday, I was in the middle of a situation where he took offense at something a couple residents said about him. It had seemed innocuous to me when it was happening, but I quickly realized it hurt Kevin. I tried to talk to him about it a couple times that evening, but he was hurt and irritated and just brushed me off. I realized he needed some time (and space), so I didn’t press the matter. When I came the next evening, I engaged him without bringing up the subject, letting him do so if he wanted. He fairly quickly apologized to me for brushing me off the night before, and the way he talked about it and apologized felt very organic, as if there were good patterns of conflict resolution he was learning at Timothy House.

Anne was in charge that Monday night, so you won’t be surprised when I tell you that she made me completely comfortable and made it so easy for me to interact that evening. I spent more time with Anne that week than most of the other staff, and I was terrifically impressed. From how she handles the residents at Timothy House to how she led worship at the Tuesday staff meeting to the reflection she wrote on hopes and dreams and stories and how Good Works is empowering people to pursue their own hopes, she brought tremendous grace to everything she does. I also thoroughly enjoyed the short conversations she and I had around Timothy House and other moments during the week. She’s truly thoughtful and wonderful.

Tuesday started with morning devotions at the house. Again, I liked how Good Works’ core values got modeled there as well. The devotion itself was relatively short and fine, but what impressed me was how the different staff members talked about what had happened the day before (and particularly what sorts of personal interactions they had had) and then prepared for what was on tap that day. At one point late in the week, Paul had to correct Jim because he had loaned out a piece of equipment that another staff member needed that day. It certainly wasn’t intentional on Jim’s part, but Paul thoughtfully and with care needed to let Jim know that it had made life difficult for a couple other people. But Paul did this in such a way that Jim wasn’t offended, and Jim took the criticism in the spirit in which it was offered. He apologized to Paul and then made a point to apologize to the other staff member. It was cool to see how a relationship-first approach functions in the midst of (admittedly minor) conflict.

I also enjoyed the staff meeting on Tuesday. I was fortunate that it was the day staff members read the letters and notes that have been written to Good Works. Again, it was neat to see the care that was evident as people read the notes and then talked about the people who had written and then prayed for various requests. It was also interesting for me to see the different perspectives of the staff members; clearly many of them come from different theological and political backgrounds. I suspect that can get testy every once in a while, but it was great to see the diversity of God’s kingdom on full display.

Wednesday was a work day with Ken. As Ken can tell you, manual labor is not my forte, and I suspect Ken was periodically surprised at what I didn’t know how to do or didn’t feel comfortable doing. But he was gracious with me at every point. He knew that it was important that I be involved, so he made sure to find things that I could do, such as scraping a ceiling or power-washing an outside wall. He was genuinely patient with me, and he wanted to show me how to do things so that I could be involved and feel an ownership in the project. That wasn’t always comfortable work for me, but there was a genuine sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. The most difficult thing for me was that I had to get on part of the roof to power-wash the second-floor walls. I am not a fan of heights, especially ladders, so getting up on the roof with the equipment was deeply intimidating at first. But I knew that it needed to be done, and that I had to do it. And so I did. Even with bees swarming around my head, standing on a roof ten feet off the ground, I did the job. And felt great about it.

It was also great to work with Keith, the hearing-impaired volunteer. He’s a great guy, and someone I suspect could be a tremendous asset to Good Works if he becomes more involved. I enjoyed getting to know him and also see how he and Ken worked together. Again, the Good Works approach was on full display. Ken made it clear before we headed out that our primary goal that day was to build a relationship with the woman, Veronica, whose house we were working on. So we took a lot of time at the beginning of the day and at points throughout just to talk to her and get to know her. We even had a chance to talk with her granddaughter and see some of the artwork she’s done. The emphasis on relationships and “ethic of inefficiency” was powerful.

Thursday was a different kind of work day. Paul asked if I’d help put together a mailer in the morning that had to get done. That wouldn’t normally be my favorite kind of work, but it worked out spectacularly well. Because it was me, Mike, and a few volunteers, I had a chance to have long conversations with people who live and grew up in the area, not just staff. I particularly enjoyed my time with Kurt, an older man who has lived in the area his whole life. He grew up very poor (an outhouse and everything), and he and his family have struggled with poverty and bad choices his whole life. It gave me a deeper understanding of rural poverty and what it looks like. I also kept coming back in mind to something Ken said about the insidious nature of government assistance (I realize that other staff members probably disagree with Ken’s views on this). Almost everyone around seems to have some kind of assistance, and it’s not clear whether they “deserve” it. But they certainly need it. Where does my compassion and kindness and grace fit into that public policy decision? Does the way I personally interact with people differ from how I might urge politicians to draft laws? I don’t have an easy answer for that.

Lunch afterward was delightful on a number of levels. I got a chance to talk with Jim for a while. At one point, I asked him about how people work enough to actually get a car (there had been a celebration earlier in the week when someone had taken possession of a car). I asked whether people had to work so many hours or how they accumulated enough “points.” Jim quickly interrupted my question to clarify something important. He said with real emphasis, “It’s never about the work. It’s always about the relationship.” And then he repeated it with even more emphasis. By this time in the week, I wasn’t surprised at the point, but it was such a nice summary of what Good Works stands for. And Jim’s evident passion was inspiring. Keith (the volunteer) joined us for lunch. At one point, Keith said he was going to play disc golf, but Mike thought he said ‘disco.’ This led to a hilarious conversation about disco dancing. Then Keith got out his frisbees, and we all threw them around the big yard. It was quite magical, with a bunch of guys—Jim, Mike, Chip, Chris, Clarence, Keith, and myself—just having fun with each other. I’ll remember that half hour with fondness for a long time.

Thursday afternoon I had the great privilege of heading out with Chris and Doug to help plant a garden. I hadn’t spent much time with either Chris or Doug, so this was a great opportunity to get to know them. The home was a ways out, so we had a wonderful drive sharing our own stories. When we got there and tried to start up the tiller, the starter broke. So now we couldn’t till the ground and could only use shovels to turn over the dirt. Obviously, we weren’t nearly as productive (or efficient) that way, but the lack of a machine allowed us to talk, and our conversations were incredibly rich and beautiful and wide-ranging: literature, including our favorite books, movies, Marxism, sustainable agriculture, Wendell Berry. Just a great, great time of fellowship and deep conversation that wouldn’t have been the same if the tiller had been working. And of course there was the satisfaction of hard, hard work; I can’t remember the last time I shoveled. Out of all the many great people I met at Good Works this week, I probably connected the most with Chris, just because we’re so much alike in our academic background and intellectual interests. I hope we didn’t bore Doug with some of our topics. It was great to get to know Doug, too, and to hear of how he and his wife are trying to buy a house, and how economic, environmental and spiritual factors come into play in that decision.

Paul and I had wisely built in a time of retreat and devotion for Friday morning. Wednesday and Thursday were long days for me. And the constant social interaction had also wore me out, as I’m genuinely introverted. So after devotions on Friday, I went to the cabin and, while the rain pattered on the roof, I enjoyed journaling and reading the Bible and praying and thinking about the week. That was really nice. Stephen was nice enough to get a fire started in the wood stove, so it made for a wonderful place to get away. When the rain cleared, I spent some time hiking on the trails that have been made in the hills. I know there’s a lot of work to be done in expanding the trails, but I thoroughly enjoyed the hike I had.

Friday afternoon was staff meeting. There was a time of affirmation, which was cool to see how people interacted in that context. And we also discussed a book on community that the staff had been reading, though unfortunately I don’t remember much about the discussion. I suspect I was just tired. Then it was time for me to say goodbye to some folk and then head over to the church for Friday Night Life.

To be honest, I was pretty wiped out from a long week, so my energy level was low for Friday Night Life. But I was excited since so many staff members had pointed to it as the highlight of the week. I helped set up tables and things and then did my best to engage with folk, but I found that tough going just because I didn’t have the social energy. And then Dawn, who was such a blessing all week long, saw that I was having difficulty and made a point of introducing me to an older gentleman. And he and I had a very nice conversation until dinner was about to be served. Dinner itself was fine, though people at my table weren’t terribly talkative. Afterwards, I threw myself into helping wash the dishes, which was an enormous project. There was a funny moment in the middle of the dishwashing experience. The leader of the church group that was hosting the meal was handling the big dishwasher, but he was spending more time talking to people than getting the dishes done. Chris realized that he would need to step in or else we’d be there all night long. Chris found a way to do that by encouraging the leader to talk with someone who had a question about the evening. When we were almost done with the dishes, I joined Doug, Dawn, and the church group for a debrief. A lot of that was going over things I already knew, but it was good to see the group process that for the first time.

My final morning (Saturday) I was teamed up with Ken again to go to another woman’s house to build a small ramp between two rooms. We took along an older volunteer (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten) who turned out to be invaluable, though he and Ken clashed slightly since they had different ideas of the best way of doing the project. It was neat to see Ken both try to get the project done and yet still work well with both the client and the volunteer. I’m glad I went out for one more project. But when I come again, I’m not sure I’ll feel the need to add a second day of service, at least not with fix-it jobs. My skills are very limited, and I don’t think I added much to the morning’s work. Still, it’s always nice to hang out with Ken, and getting to know the volunteer was also worthwhile.

The week ended with Paul and I grabbing lunch. I’m glad we got to do that, as it helped me get to know Paul better (we talked about his kids and especially the process of adopting his daughter). I particularly enjoyed our discussion of how being an introvert affects his work in a very social environment.

Other highlights of the week:

a) I enjoyed the debrief that happened at Timothy House at the end of each evening. Not only did I get to spend time with different staff members, I was affirmed each night as being an important member of the team. That caught me off guard on Monday, but by Thursday I had internalized that I too had value to what was happening in the house.
b) I really enjoyed spending time with Mike, the resident who was living in Hannah House. It was great to hear his story and also just to spend time with him. He was truly genuine and thoughtful. I obviously don’t know what he was like before he came to be involved with Good Works, but clearly good things are happening in his life.
c) I know that Chip is moving on soon, but I really valued talking to him about the work he does in helping people in need connect with resources that could be valuable to them. The difficulty of that task is evident, and Chip made it clear how seriously he took that assignment.
d) I had a number of great interactions with Jim during the week. It struck me that Jim and I are pretty different people, and yet I felt completely comfortable with him. And I really appreciate how he serves the Lord in the way he interacts with volunteers, clients, and others who come into contact with Good Works.

Overall, the thing that struck me again and again about Good Works is the amazing quality of its staff. Every single person I met was thoughtful, committed to his or her work, and deeply interested in relationships, even with someone like myself who was only going to be around for a week. I don’t know if the organization just attracts great people or if people become great by working at Good Works. In any event, it’s a truly special organization, and I was both inspired and challenged to spend a week in the midst of it.

As I heard people’s stories, especially the staff members’ stories of how they came to work at Good Works, I found it interesting how many people were sought out by Keith or someone else at Good Works. It got me to wondering whether Keith’s repeated admonitions to come down to Athens were his way of getting me to think about getting more involved with Good Works. As I mentioned to Chris toward the end of the week, I’d love to be involved with the great people of Good Works and contribute to the amazing work you’re doing. But the thought of me, a tried and true city boy, moving out into the country seems almost impossible. On the other hand, as my church has been moving toward a more intentional kind of community in the last year, Good Works has given me a number of ways of thinking how that might look here in Chicago, and what principles are important to establish as we work with the needy in our neighborhood. And I definitely plan to come back to Athens in the near future and serve and fellowship. It was a tremendous privilege for me to spend a week with all of you. You have blessed me in countless ways. May God continue to bless you and those you meet.

I realize this reflection is mostly for my benefit, and I’m glad that Paul prodded me to finish it. But I also hope that it’s an encouragement to you. Please feel free to share any of this with the appropriate staff people. And if you have any questions for me about anything, please email back. I do plan to return to Athens. I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do it every year, but I hope to make it a consistent trip. If nothing else, there are so many people I want to continue to get to know better. And maybe next time I’ll bring some folk from Chicago. Until then (or until you come to Chicago), you’re in my thoughts and prayers.