The first church I served after graduating from seminary was located in the rapidly growing suburbs of Southern California. The congregation numbered more than 2,000, so we were able to support a wide variety of programs for people of almost every age. My assignment was to develop programs for junior high, senior high and college students. Because the church was located across the street from a high school, I spent time on campus meeting and encouraging students while they participated in after-school activities. Our high school group grew large enough that I was able to recruit several parents to help in our activities.
One of our favorite activities was the annual summer work caravan. All of us - students and parents alike - worked raising money through the fall and winter to buy supplies for our work projects. One summer we helped homeowners dig mud out of their houses along the northern California coast near Arcata, where flooding rivers the winter before had caused considerable damage. One summer we remodeled a church in Garberville and held a vacation Bible school in McKinleyville. Another summer we built a fellowship hall for a church on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.
The latter project held a special challenge for me, because we were surrounded by curious Hoopa youth who seemed to resent our being there. Curiosity sometimes broke out into mischief. We camped in the church yard under plastic awnings and on top of a truckload of redwood shavings. One evening after everyone finally had quieted down, the local young people began pelting us with very ripe plums that were in abundant supply in the orchard behind the church. It was all the leaders could do to stop the fighting, to convince our visitors to leave, and to get our young people settled down. We had one very welcome ally in the person of the local sheriff, a Hoopa who stood almost 7 feet tall and who would tolerate no foolishness from either side of the ethnic line drawn so clearly that night.
That all stopped by the river. After each hard day's work in the hot sun, all of us badly needed both a bath and a little recreation. The sheriff told us about a wonderful swimming hole in the Klamath River below where it is joined by the Trinity River. The water was eight to 10 feet deep, clear, and cut through high rock faces which provided exciting places from which the courageous could dive into the water. I'm a swimmer, not a high diver; I enjoyed my perspective from the river, where I could keep an eye on the daredevils above. The Hoopas joined us and a contest began. Our group had some very good athletes who helped bridge the division between country hicks and city slickers.
There was one high perch - I would guess about 20 feet above the surface of the river - that most of the group used once their courage was up to the dive. When both sides realized that I remained in the water, they began to dare me to stand to the full height of adult leadership.
Nervously I took my time climbing to the top, and with little fanfare plunged straight down into the water far below. I had not mastered the art of shallow diving; instead I crashed with thunderous weight into the mud and gravel of the bottom and surfaced with a pounding head and bleeding nose. I was more humiliated than hurt, however, and soon everyone realized it was all right to laugh. The Hoopas spent the rest of the afternoon showing us how to ride the currents along the bottom of the river, with eyes wide open and arms outstretched to ease our way through the boulders below. My experience as a skin diver helped me excel in this, and I began to look a little less like a buffoon.
What was most remarkable to me was the change in both groups. First the Hoopas joined us for dinner at our invitation, then they began to join us for work at their initiation. No longer did we see ourselves as outsiders doing something good for the Hoopas and no longer did the Hoopas see themselves as outsiders who did nothing for their struggling church and pastor. What happened to us as people both socially and spiritually was far more important than the physical building we constructed. As leaders we might have been able to claim credit for the planning and erecting of the hall (church members completed it after we left), but only God created out of Hoopa and non-Hoopa a fellowship, even if only for a short time during a summer long ago. For that I'll always be grateful.
Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Clatsop Plains.