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By Elijah Tornow as told to Amy Bode

It looked like a third world country.

It was hard to believe we were still in the United States and only an eight hour drive from Elmhurst.

I’d been in poor neighborhoods before. I’d seen littered streets, crumbling buildings, and empty lots. But I’d never seen anything like the rundown trailers I was assigned to work on for the week with the Timothy Christian Appalachia Renew Trip in Northeastern Kentucky.

Five generations of one family called the group of trailers home. I was assigned to work on Rita’s trailer, she was about 60 years old and was already a great-grandma. Her one bedroom, one bathroom trailer had a kitchen, but no gas line, so she could not use her oven or stove.  Most of her kitchen was taken up by a mattress she had just left in the middle of the floor. Outside was no better.  Her deck wasn’t safe enough to stand on.

I felt like Rita and I were from two different worlds. I wasn’t sure I could ever understand the way she lived.  But I was anxious to help her and get to work. Since it was my first mission trip, I really wanted to make a difference in her life.

The first day, I worked with nine other Timothy students to demolish her deck. It was hard work, but it felt good. Even though I hadn’t really spoken to Rita, I still felt like I had done something that might make her life a little better.

The next day, we worked all morning. But at lunchtime, Rita invited the nine TC students working on her deck inside for lunch. She didn’t have much, but she generously shared what little she had. But most importantly she shared her faith with us.

“I believe in God’s sovereignty,” she told us. “He is in control of everything.”

She explained how hard it was to survive in Appalachia. Once the coal mines closed, hundreds of people lost their jobs. “Those coal mines may have offered jobs,” she explained. “But they were a death sentence. People either died working in the mines or they died of black lung.”

But once the mines closed, there were no other place for the suddenly unemployed to work. No industries or factories had moved into the area. The Appalachian region of Kentucky is the poorest area of the United States, where nearly 40% of people live below the poverty line.  She didn’t have any real answers to the extreme poverty, joblessness, and economic depression that had cast a shadow over the entire region that she called home.

The only thing she was sure of was her faith. She trusted God with everything.

Everything I took for granted—a comfortable home, new clothes, phones, even my Timothy education—she didn’t have. She only had her faith.

After lunch, Mr. Rink, one of the teachers from Timothy, asked us all to hold hands so he could pray for us. Something happened when we bowed our heads. All our differences disappeared because we had one thing in common. The only thing that really mattered: The love of Christ.

Over the next few days, I was able to connect with Rita and even got to know her family. We finished her deck and she was grateful. But honestly, I think she helped me more than I helped her. She showed me what true generosity and selfless love looks like. And as a Christian, that’s how I want to live the rest of my life—selflessly loving and serving others.

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