By Garrett Johnson
In my preparations to develop a newsletter article concerning the events of the Ferncliff Presbytery Mission trip, I found myself at a “loss of adjectives.” After some difficult mental grappling, I recalled the docent of the Museum of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which gained notoriety in the struggle for our civil rights mentioned and defined the word “Liminal Space.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary in my library, the definition of “liminal” is as follows: “of or at the limen or threshold; of the first stage.”
I realized that I was in a “liminal space” in that I had never been a participant in a church/faith-based mission trip. To be sure, being a military retiree has presented me with ample opportunities to live, work, and enjoy many different nations, states, and communities. This undertaking was clearly outside of my comfort zone as I arrived at the parking lot of Westminster Presbyterian Church which is a wonderful community located about an hour and a half due southwest of Spartanburg, SC. This was also going to be my first trip away from my beloved wife Becky since I retired from the Army career in 2020. I am not ashamed to disclose that I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of my combat service in the military, and as such, I could feel the effects of this malady in my nervousness and ‘hyper alertness.”
As we said our goodbyes to those who dropped us off, and wished us well, followed by starting our travels in the van, I found myself arriving at a state of serenity and excited expectancy of the opportunities awaiting myself and my fellow members of the mission trip. I think I can accurately surmise that God through Jesus put me into this most appropriate mind frame. This mission trip was destined to be and shall remain one of the most memorable expeditions in which I have participated during my 60 years. There were three larger themes of this mission trip as well as a lot of wonderful experiences.
The first of the three key themes of this mission trip was comprised of an educational portion that consisted of the viewing of different historic and cultural sights which depict the Civil Rights movements in the United States. Secondly, we performed various types of volunteer service work on most of the days during the course of this trip. Perhaps most importantly, we engaged in several “Daily Devotions” to discuss our reactions to various Bible verses with associated vignettes in the book of devotionals by the author Bob Goff entitled “Live in Grace, Walk in Love.”
During the visit to our first civil rights historic site, we were blessed by two experiences. First, we viewed the museum of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. At this location on 15 September, 1963, four young African American girls tragically lost their lives to the horror of racist and xenophobic terrorism. The names Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley should remain in our hearts through compassionate prayer and increased vigilance to promote love over racism. We were also invited to the Sunday worship service at the 16th Street Baptist Church. We were all truly inspired and honored to worship God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit within the warm and supportive atmosphere of the entire congregation.
In addition, we were able to participate in a tour of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. At this location in 1957, nine African American Students had to be escorted by Arkansas National Guard Troops who were placed under Federal authority to ensure that all students could safely attend this school and benefit from their right to an education. These students displayed courage of an inspirational level as they faced taunts, jeers, jostling as well as other physical and psychological violence for simply wanting to attend school to further their opportunities through education.
The capstone event was a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee. This is the location at which the leading civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was fatally shot in 1968. Viewing the hotel room in which Dr. King stayed as well as the location on the balcony at which he was shot was a haunting experience.
Our mission trip group underwent a strong level of satisfaction and joy while completing several days of service work in Little Rock, Arkansas. I think we can take pride at how we worked several two hour plus sessions at Ferncliff Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and were able to build 181 Personal Hygiene Kits, 109 Menstrual Hygiene Packs, and 864 ‘Rise Above Hunger’ family meal packets. Service work opportunities continued with “Let Our Violence End” (LOVE) where we engaged in such tasks as serving 137 meals to recovering drug addicts, individuals transferring from incarceration to free society, and the homeless. We also worked in their thrift shop, sorting and organizing hundred of garments. We were further blessed by being allowed to partake in other acts of altruism and philanthropy by doing work for a morning at the Little Rock Compassion Center, and finally, culminating in preparing dozens of bagged nutritious meals at the First Presbyterian Church of Downtown Little Rock.
The hard but very joyous and gratifying service work in concert with the educational component of our visits to some historically impactful Civil Rights Movement Sites garnered the need for time to reflect and socialize as a group on both our individual and collective experiences. The true icing on the cake in this regard were our “Daily Devotionals” which included some important Bible Verses and associated vignettes from Bob Goff’s book “Live in Grace, Walk in Love”, and reflections from Rev. Audrey Reese. Topics included the ‘loving of difficult people,’ ‘asking for permission, love is its own green light,’ and other themes to promote both tolerance and compassion. While we most assuredly felt an atmosphere of joy and happiness in completing the important work of this mission trip, we did have some ‘scheduled and assigned fun’ with the inclusion of some activities such as attending a Birmingham Barons Double “A” Minor League Baseball game, several sit-down meals in some nice ethnic restaurants to include Mexican and Japanese Cuisine, and even going down a one-hundred-foot slide tube at Ferncliff without any injuries!
As an end result, I would like to be more involved with Christian Mission Trips without question or reservation; and I think I can dare say, while feeling I am no longer in a liminal space. In the same breath, I would also say that the experience of this trip and its amazing co participants has inspired me to be less afraid of the liminal space that I must strive to be the best person and best Christian I can be. I do not know if I will get there, but now, armed with the feeling of inspiration of joy of this mission trip, I know that I am not afraid to try! I will and must strive to prompt myself to work more towards the aims of compassion, altruism, and forbearance while fighting the forces of racism, hate, and xenophobia while simultaneously promoting my own faith in in God, Jesus, and the Spirit.
Garrett P. Johnson is a member of First Presbyterian Church of Spartanburg, where he is also a candidate for the office of Deacon. Garrett is a retired Army Colonel, and has served in Germany, the Netherlands, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, and Virginia. Garrett also served a combat tour in Iraq from the summer of 2005 to August of 2006. He currently resides in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he enjoys spending retirement with his wife Becky, daughter Sarah, son-in-law, Whitner, and their three amazing grandchildren, Jay, Grady, and Virginia. He also volunteers at First Presbyterian as an Usher, Basketball Coach, and he also assists with Vacation Bible School. He also founded and serves on a “Good Neighbor Team” which through a partnership with the non profit organization World Relief, supports a former refugee family from Africa.