I’ve posted or Facebooked several times lately about Mountain T.O.P. Adults in Ministry. Last summer, I went to two separate weeks of AIM (just to be clear, I’m only suggesting you do one). It was the first time in several years I’d been to the summer AIM ministry. I’d been a couple of times to fall AIM weekends, and those are great as well, but to me there’s something special about the kind of community that forms during a week-long event. Plus I have a passion for two programs that are only offered during summer AIM events. I had forgotten just how much I missed the program, and it meant a lot to me to be there.
I’d really like to take some more folks with me in the summer of 2012. I’m already trying to lay some groundwork at church. I already go to church with two Mountain T.O.P. regulars, Andy and Edna Lee Borders; Andy is currently on the Mountain T.O.P. board, just as I used to be. But we’ve never been able to make that connection to convince others to take the plunge. I’d like to change that this year.
But if the reader will indulge me, I’d like to widen my net a little bit, and invite you – yes, you – to join me next summer.
George Bass, the founder of Mountain T.O.P., used to say that trying to describe Mountain T.O.P. to someone who’s never been is like trying to explain what a banana tastes like to someone who’s never eaten one.
But I’m a writer, and I like explaining things. So I’m going to endeavor to explain what this program does for me and why I think you would enjoy it as well. But first, here’s the brand new AIM video, which will take you about four minutes and change to watch:
First, a little background. Mountain T.O.P., the parent organization, was founded in 1975 by the youth group from Blakemore United Methodist Church in Nashville and its director, the aforementioned George Bass. Mountain T.O.P. has some organizational ties to the United Methodist church but is interdenominational in its approach and attracts volunteers from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds. The staff could probably refer you to someone from your denomination who’s been to one of our ministries. Mountain T.O.P. ministers on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, in some areas that have high poverty and deeply ingrained cultural distinctives, some positive, others not so much.
Mountain T.O.P. began as a youth program, and its largest single component remains its Youth Summer Ministry, which has church youth groups from across the eastern half of the U.S. as volunteers. Most youth groups do minor home repairs, with a few conducting day camp activities for children from the mountain communities. (It’s a “day camp” for the mountain kids, not for the youth volunteers, who obviously stay overnight.)
But as Mountain T.O.P. grew, more ministries were added. AIM – the program I’m trying to tell you about – was added because some of the mountain families had home repair or construction needs that simply weren’t practical for youth group members to try to meet. There are also ministry opportunities for college students on spring break, and a family work weekend in April designed to let parents and children be in ministry together.
When you sign up for a summer AIM week, you decide in which of several ministries you’d like to participate. At each of the three week-long AIM events held each summer, there’s a choice between major home repair and a second program which benefits children or youth from the mountains. So if you came with your spouse, or with friends from your church, each person could decide which program to sign up for:
- Major Home Repair (offered any of the three weeks) – Volunteers help expand, repair or renovate homes of needy mountain families.
- Kaleidoscope (offered the first week of the summer) – Volunteers lead arts activities for special-needs children from Grundy County, where such activities in the school system aren’t very plentiful. Some volunteers lead workshops; others simply assist workshop leaders and/or children as needed through the day. “Special needs” is broadly defined, and can include anything from severe disabilities to ADD or a poor home situation. Most of the children are referred by the school system, but Mountain T.O.P. may recruit others directly if it encounters them through its other programs.
- Summer Plus (offered the second week of the summer) – Volunteers lead enrichment workshops for teens from Grundy County. This can include almost anything an adult is passionate about and a young teen might enjoy learning, from tennis to photography to creative writing. (I got into AIM in order to teach creative writing.)
- Quest (offered the third week of the summer) – This is the newest program, and the only one on the list in which I’ve never participated. It’s an adventure program for teens from Grundy County. Teens go on a low ropes course, a high ropes course, rappelling and rock climbing, and they spend a day on a service project such as building a wheelchair ramp. Adult volunteers aren’t required to participate in all the activities.
As you read those descriptions, you probably said, at some point, “I’m not qualified to do [x].” Or maybe you had gender-specific or age-specific preconceptions about what type of volunteer each program is seeking.
Here we arrive at the first thing I love about this program: Short-term missions in general, and Mountain T.O.P. in particular, have the potential to challenge people and pull them out of their comfort zones, with beneficial results — but some people push this farther than others, and Mountain T.O.P. gives people the freedom to take things at their own pace.
I’ve known a number of women involved in child care or elementary education who happen to have attended Mountain T.O.P. There are two different camps: some tend to drift towards Kaleidoscope, thinking that it will play to their strengths and that Kaleidoscope is a fun, change-of-pace way to reconnect with what they already love about their profession. Others go towards home repair, seeking a complete change from their normal work life. Frances, an elementary school teacher from North Carolina, ran the home repair portion of AIM as a summer staff member for several years in the 1990s, about the time I first got involved with AIM. She found it quite rewarding, and a great change of pace from what she did during the school year.
My own mother, when she went to her first AIM fall weekend, came back and told everyone she came into contact with that she had mudded drywall. She described this in the same tones you might use to describe your first trip to the Grand Canyon. It delighted her to be able to do something new and outside her own comfort zone.
Marty was a big, strapping guy from Texas who signed up for the home repair ministry a decade ago. When he injured his shoulder just a week or two before camp, he was advised by the doctors not to do home repair — and the AIM staff talked him into coming to camp anyway and helping out with Kaleidoscope. He reluctantly agreed. The kids adored him. They hugged him, they fought over the chance to try on his cowboy hat, and they just generally worshipped the ground he walked on. There were two brothers that particularly touched his heart — adorable little guys, although one of our fellow volunteers with a background in child care speculated that their stick-figure physiques might be related to fetal alcohol syndrome.
The next year, when he came back to AIM, Marty signed up for Kaleidoscope. He was hooked. I was glad; some of the kids who come to Kaleidoscope and Summer Plus are in clear need of loving, Christian male role models like Marty.
The team-building process used by the AIM home-repair ministry is specifically designed to make sure that each team contains men and women of a variety of skill levels. One member of the team might be a professional contractor; another, a 70-year-old great-grandmother. But somehow, every member of the team ends up finding useful work at the site, and everybody learns something. (The contractor, I suspect, may end up learning how to bite his tongue from time to time) The ministry at the site includes not only the construction project but also interaction with the family, and that’s something everyone can be involved in and learn from.
My AIM experience pushes me out of my comfort level. I first signed up for AIM because I thought it would be fun to teach creative writing — but being a writer and being a writing teacher are two different things. I can share my passion, and that counts for a lot, but I don’t have a trained educator’s knowledge and resources to deal with problems and unexpected situations.
Some years work out better than others — it depends on whether I get teens who actually signed up for creative writing or whether I get teens who were put there by the staff. (Summer Plus teens participate in two different workshops, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The staff generally tries to assign the teens to at least one of their top choices, but sometimes a teen winds up with one workshop they picked and another they wouldn’t have picked.)
Last summer, we had a pretty good workshop. It had been a while since I’d taught creative writing, and I was worried about how it would go. When I found out that one of my assistants would be Diana, a career teacher and coach, I actually felt a little self-conscious about it, even as many times as I’ve done creative writing at Summer Plus. But the workshop went fine, and both Diana and another teacher who was working in Summer Plus were amazed at how well our group-written story turned out. I was proud of that.
I’ve told people that you sometimes run into challenges and frustrations during a Mountain T.O.P. week. I’ve certainly run into them, and there were weeks when, if I’d had the chance to leave camp on Tuesday, I would have taken it. But God always seems to turn things around, to create opportunities, to draw from me resources and abilities I never knew I had.
Last summer, during my Kaleidoscope week, the volunteers were briefed on Sunday night and told about one of our campers who was severely autistic. We were warned that he was a “runner.” Sure enough, during our opening circle on Monday morning, he took off. I ran after him, but the ground near the pavilion at Cumberland Pines is somewhat uneven, and I tripped and made a perfect three-point landing. I was wearing shorts, and I bloodied both my knees and one elbow. I also twisted an ankle, and had a little bit of a limp for most of the week.
After being bandaged up, I followed the autistic camper for much of that day, which took all of my attention and really kept me away from what was really being done in the workshops. It was exhausting, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it all week, but it was also satisfying.
The next day, it was decided that someone else would accompany the autistic boy. I was still hobbling, and my fellow volunteers didn’t really call on me for much. I felt strangely disconnected, like a fifth wheel. That night, in our Kaleidoscope team sharing, I expressed my frustrations. Gina, who’d taken over for me in dealing with the autistic camper, also expressed her fears that she wasn’t doing enough to engage him. (She was wrong, and we all assured her that she was doing a fantastic job.) By the end of the session, Gina and I were both in tears, but it was a cathartic moment. The next day, I felt a lot more engaged and useful, and I had a fantastic rest of the week.
That session also brought our Kaleidoscope team together in a powerful way, which brings me to the next thing about the program that I love. If you’ve never been in an atmosphere of intense Christian community, it’s hard to describe. There’s something about setting yourself apart for a week or two in God’s service – for a mission camp, or a foreign mission trip — that brings out the best in everyone. A cynic might say that it’s an artificial situation in which people pretend to be better than they are. I choose not to see it that way. I choose to see it as a laboratory, a practice field, a training facility. I will admit to you that I’m different when I’m at camp. I still remember the reaction when I took some people from Wartrace UMC, where I was attending at the time, to Mountain T.O.P. with me. They remarked that I seemed like a different person when I was at AIM. Fair enough. I feel more comfortable, more social, more giving in that environment. But I also feel that my Mountain T.O.P. experiences, and my foreign mission experiences, have changed me. Maybe those changes have been subtle; maybe I don’t work hard enough the other 50 weeks of the year to recreate my experience from the two weeks I spend in ministry.
When I talk to other Christians, or church groups, about programs like Mountain T.O.P., I sometimes get asked why someone would travel to another county (or another state, or another nation) to be in ministry when we have needs here at home. The answer to that is that it’s not an either-or situation. Some of my favorite Mountain T.O.P. friends are also intensely involved in their own home communities when they’re not at Mountain T.O.P. A mission trip does not take the place of the ministry you have in your home community; quite the contrary. It sharpens you, opens your eyes, warms your heart in ways that may make you more suited for ministry back home (or, to borrow a phrase from the official Mountain T.O.P. song, “in the valley below”).
Is it worth spending $375 and giving up a week of precious vacation to go to Tennessee and spend a week in the Mountains? I can say that it is for me. This summer, a camper named Sheila who came to AIM once, years ago, and never forgot it was able to bring a big group from her church. She thought it was worth it, and by the end of the week (heck, by the end of the day Monday) the others in her group seemed to feel the same way.
Please think for a minute about whether or not this program might be worth looking into. The relevant information is here. If I can be of any help, let me know. I’d love to join you on the Mountain in summer 2012.