Johns Island: A tradition of January service by seminarians to neighbors in the south

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By Professor Robert B. Robinson
Anna Burkhalter Professor, Old Testament and Hebrew

Sixteen years ago, a group of great students at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) became concerned about the burning of churches in the south and wanted to help rebuild. Rural Mission, an organization on Johns Island, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, had a ministry of rebuilding and repairing houses for residents of the island, many of them elderly, who could not afford to fix up their own places. The students jumped at the opportunity and began a tradition that continues through today.

From the beginning, the trip has been completely student-led. All major decisions are made by the group. I go along to be the official seminary representative, but the students are the leaders. At LTSP, we see our mission as training leaders for the church. The Johns Island trip provides a concrete opportunity for future leaders to hone their skills, figure out how to accomplish tasks they set themselves, and form a community around the important work they are doing. The trip normally involves between 10 and 25 students. This year, 17 are leaving Saturday, January 18, for a week on Johns Island.

Working at the saw stationThe work itself varies depending on what Anderson Mack, our “strawboss” at Rural Mission, has determined is most pressing. One year, we will be putting on a new roof and dry walling, or putting in a new floor or even foundations. Some students may spend their days splitting wood while others are constructing an entry ramp for a resident in a wheelchair. Students bring what skills they have, or none at all, and learn trades as they go. One memorable year two students, Megan Fryling and Rachel Zimmermann, took over the responsibility of running a chop saw to cut parts for a 12-foot high staircase. Neither had used a power saw before. Within a day they were handling double compound cuts that fit perfectly. If they ever need a second career ....

Zimmermann, who holds Master of Arts in Religion and Master of Sacred Theology degrees from the seminary, now serves LTSP as its Coordinator of Student Learning Assessment and Assistant to the Faculty. “We became known as ‘Women of the Saw’,” Zimmermann recalled of her assignment with Fryling. They worked on a modest home that had been damaged by storms and flooding, helping to install Pergo flooring and taking on other projects in the house as well as building railings for front steps leading up to the home.

“Our station beneath the home, which had been raised on stilt supports, became a kind of community hub, allowing workers a few brief moments for conversation and rest,” she recalled. Zimmermann remembered the weather was cool with rain some of the time. At night she recalled venturing with others to a dock on the lake where the crew stayed, looking up at the stars and talking about “everything or nothing.”

“One of the most satisfying moments was when the family who lived in the home came to view our progress. They were overwhelmed by the amount of work that had been done to restore their home, and we were overwhelmed by the grace we felt in what had become for us a holy space. We felt humbled that the Gullah people had allowed us to to enter into their lives and for a short time become a part of their community. This mission trip bound our group together in friendships beyond seminary, and the experience is not one I will ever forget.”

Building a stairwayThe work and interaction with residents of the islands are transformative in many ways. The first year, many of the students were shocked by the conditions they encountered as they worked in the houses — bugs in the wall, substandard construction. They persevered and saw what a difference a lot of Christian love and some hard work could make. One year, after we had finished renovating a very decrepit kitchen and putting in new cabinets, the owner of the house spent the last day with us thoroughly cleaning her stove of years of accumulated grease. Transformative. Talking to the residents, many of whom are old and deeply a part of the Gullah culture and very hospitable to those working on their houses, is to expand our sense of who belongs to our community and how rich in different personalities God's world really is.

This year, for the first time, there is a seminary course that accompanies the trip for those who care to take it. Before departing, the students break into groups and research the history of the area, the religious institutions found on the island, the nature of Gullah culture, and the effects of economic development on the island as Gullah culture is displaced. The research will be deepened by interactions with institutions and individuals on Johns Island; book learning will become real personal experience.

Students raise all the funds for the trip through fundraising activities on campus and by soliciting contributions from former participants and willing congregations. Another important part of leadership in the church!

The trip has traditionally been open to non-students such as spouses and children of participants. This year, as on several former occasions, the Rev. Bob Burkhart, an LTSP alumnus who was on the first trip, will be joining the group for the week. 

First-year seminarian Justin Lingenfelter of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, said he is anticipating “an awesome experience on Johns Island. What a fantastic and personal way to engage in ministry and service with our neighbors!”

(images from the 2009 service trip)

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Johns Island

I would like to join the group as an Alumna of the trip some year!  What a great service opportunity! 

Pam Wynne LTSP 2003

First Trip

I was part of the first trip to Johs Island. It is great to see it is still continuing. Blessings, Jeff Silvernail '98