Maggie Schmid, Staff Writer
“Restless” might be the only way to describe myself as I finished my freshman year at Notre Dame last spring. Though I had finally chosen my major, made some friends and adapted to college life, I was faced with an empty summer ahead of me. I was interested in working outside of my hometown of South Bend, so I turned to Appalachia Service Project (ASP), a nonprofit organization with which I had volunteered for a one-week summer mission trip in high school. In choosing to do service work over the summer, I anticipated a new perspective and a much-needed reality check. However, I could never have predicted the complete transformation that this project would affect for me.
Appalachia Service Project works to eradicate substandard housing in distressed counties of Appalachia. This summer, I was on staff at a center of dual ministries: hosting Christian youth groups who would provide emergency home repair during the day, and organizing and facilitating Christian programming at night. The volunteers arrived weekly with the same mindset with which I arrived: I was going to save the world. I was coming to Appalachia to rescue the people and bring God to them; I was going to serve them. Throughout the summer, I realized that the completely opposite dynamic was the case.
When I began my work, I realized that I was completely out of my comfort zone. I would enter homes of the most dilapidated state I have seen in my life—and needless to say, unfit for human beings to inhabit. Some homeowners were happy, welcoming and loving; others embarrassed, hopeless and depressed. Every home situation had to be dealt with differently, but all were vulnerable. The homeowners were allowing a random college student (with less than two weeks of construction training) to come in with untrained high school youth who intended to make the homeowners’ houses warmer, safer and drier.
As each day went by, however, what happened was much greater than simple home rehabilitation. I witnessed a true happiness that did not depend on material goods, a concept foreign to what I had believed prior to this experience. I witnessed homeowners opening up and allowing hope back into their lives. I witnessed high school students gaining new perspective on life and learning the meaning of Jesus’ call to serve the poor. I witnessed people seeing Christ in each other.
I had never better understood the famous saying of Tex Evans, founder of ASP: “Right where you are, just the way you are.” It did not matter where along his or her faith journey a homeowner was or how much money he or she had. It did not matter what university I attended or how much I knew about construction. We accepted each other right where we were, just the way were, to come together to rebuild the lives of the homeowners, both figuratively and literally.
What I saw in myself and others was the opportunity for us to love unconditionally. The most powerful realization I had was that this is how God has loved me all along, and will continue to love me forever. And almost instantly, my life was changed.
This realization has thankfully stayed with me since then as it has woven itself into my life in different ways. ASP’s theme last year was “Radical Reversal”; we preached change from our daily goings-on and a conversion to align our wills with God’s for us. When I left small town Chapmanville, West Virginia, I realized just how radically I had changed. Shopping for myself was less appealing; the Mishawaka mall was sensory overload, and that’s saying something. My faith has become the foundation for my life, rather than just one aspect of it. I have a newfound courage in myself to see Christ in everyone I encounter and love them exactly where they are, just the way they are.
With this mindset, this school year has been very different from last. Coming back, I was uncomfortable with certain things that used to seem normal to me, a feeling that I had noticed as early as halfway through the summer. I expressed this sentiment to my dad, who told me that my discomfort was a good thing because it meant that I had changed. I have gained a greater understanding of the poor in one area of our country, an understanding that has rocked the way I make choices every day. I learned that when I accept and love people right where they are, just the way they are, I am mirroring the love of Christ. And with this, my heart rests.
Maggie Schmid is a sophomore living in Cavanaugh Hall studying psychology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.