Over the first weekend of spring break, a few of my fellow UKirk friends and I travelled to Charlotte, NC—my hometown—to take part in a mini-mission trip through CROSS Missions. We arrived on a chilly Friday night and were immediately welcomed by Joel Tomkinson, who greeted us with an enormous amount of energy for late on a Friday night. He set the tone for the rest of the trip: a fast-paced journey through ministries carrying out God’s work in the Charlotte community.
Bright and early on Saturday we crawled out of our sleeping bags and gathered for breakfast in one of the many rooms of Myers Park Presbyterian Church’s Urban Outreach Center. We were joined by our friends from Hope House at UT Chattanooga who had arrived even later than we had. It was great to meet them and learn more about the great things they are doing at UTC and the unique perspectives they brought with them on this trip.
After a quick breakfast and briefing we headed off to our first site: Changed Choices. Changed Choices is an organization that helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated females find their place in society. And unlike the cold and unwelcoming prisons and jails these women were living in, Changed Choices is run out of a beautiful home nestled in one of Charlotte’s neighborhoods. During most of our time at the house we were doing yard work, organizing folders, and writing positive notes to incarcerated women, which was a daunting task. What do you say to a woman you’ve never met before who is serving time in prison or jail? While the words were difficult to find, the message, for me, was simple: keep your spirits high and have faith that God still has plans for you. This message rang true for one of the released women living full-time at Changed Choices and during our time volunteering, she opened up and told us her story. Ramona Brant’s story of faith and perseverance through hard times and unjust rulings was simply amazing (if you want to learn more, just Google her!), and her story taught me a lot about the flaws in our prison system, our laws, and our society that we must address. But despite her hardships, Ramona is bright, full of energy, and, with the help of the Changed Choices program, ready to reenter the society that locked her away. Changed Choices is a truly amazing organization at work in the Charlotte community, and I felt honored to have volunteered there.
Following a quick, but needed, break for lunch, we then went to the Samaritan House where there was less work (if you count baking cookies as work) and more play. The Samaritan House provides living accommodations for homeless people recovering from illness or injury, which can often be a dull and frustrating process. We arrived with board games, cookie dough, and lemonade in tow to liven the day for these healing homeless people. Together we played Apples to Apples, Banagrams, Bingo, and many other games with our newfound friends.
At first, many of them were reluctant to play with us and sat there quiet and reserved,but as the day progressed, they were laughing along with us and were really engaging in the games. On the surface, this may have seemed like we were accomplishing little—compared to the work we did at Changed Choices—but the real change was occurring beneath the surface. One of the previous residents, who came back to play board games, told us about the true impact on him of these encounters. He said that life on the streets made him cold and unfriendly; it made him forget how to be sociable around others, and playing these games with people—sometimes as young as middle school—helped him relearn how to interact with others and be empathetic, skills he would need to succeed in society and escape life on the streets. He, like Ramona, is one example of many success stories from the work of these organizations, and hearing it from them made my time at CROSS Missions even more fulfilling and worthwhile. It was weekend in Charlotte well spent.