Finney Students Serve With No Limits
By Rev. Dr. Peter Edward Burch, PhD
Penfield, New York
Amazing things can happen between a teacher and students in a classroom, but a 2,800 mile mission trip from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico (and back) is not one of them. On July 2, 2014, a high school history teacher from The Charles Finney School (that would be me) and six of my students returned from a Project Compassion mission trip that covered eight states in ten days. We brought acts of compassion as far South as the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. How did such a far-reaching mission of compassion come about? Finney is guided by four core values—character, community, creativity, and compassion. Mike VanLeeuwen, the school’s president, defines compassion as "reaching out to those in need by offering both spiritual and tangible support in service, both locally and internationally." On the first day of the 2012-2013 school year, I started Project Compassion as a school outreach tied to our core values and inspired by Jesus who said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Project Compassion puts absolutely no limits on what God can do. As evidence, Finney students have traveled over 7,000 miles completing eleven disaster relief mission trips: seven to Highlands, NJ; one to Washington, IL; one to Penn Yan, NY; one to Smithfield, NY, and the aforementioned 10-day mission which is the focus of the story I am about tell.
His Love is Indescribable
On Sunday, June 22nd, five 16-year olds—Devonte, Gareth, Matt, Noah, Ethan—and Honus, age 15, stuffed themselves into my mini-van and we were off for the Deep South. The boys are a fellowship of close friends who exemplify Project Compassion’s no-limits mindset, having served on a combined 44 disaster relief mission trips. Our first stop on this trip was Lighthouse Ministries in Lexington, Kentucky, an 11-hour drive, which required spending a night in "The Bat Cave," the name the boys gave to my brother David's luxurious basement in New Albany, Ohio. The Burch family also lodged us on our Christmas 2013 mission to Washington, Illinois, to serve in the aftermath of a razing tornado that turned an idyllic housing development into an apocalyptic wasteland. We arrived at Lighthouse just in time to serve back-to-back meals to local residents in dire need of compassion. Honus was invited to address the gathering of men, women, and children. "God's love has enabled me to do so many good things. His love is indescribable and once you experience His love, you cannot accept anything less." After each meal, the boys and other volunteers spread throughout the room and prayed for guests. "I could tell that the Holy Spirit was moving throughout our gathering," Honus remembered. Before leaving for Tennessee, I told Tay Henderson, Executive Director, that Project Compassion will contribute to the Lord’s work at Lighthouse. "If all we collect is one dollar, we will send it," I promised, "because there is no limit to what God can do with that dollar.” Project Compassion believes wholeheartedly that doing something is greater than doing nothing. At the Kentucky Horse Park Campground, I prayed myself to sleep marveling at how God was already using these boys to, in the words of Honus, “do so many good things.”
If You Got Jesus, Hold On To Him
We pulled into the parking lot of ThriftSmart, a Nashville ministry that sells donated goods and uses the income to support local and international Christian ministries. Bruce Krapf, store manager, greeted us and assigned us to work alongside Chuck Dobs. “Everyone calls me Uncle Chuck,” he said in a way that meant—and you will call me Uncle Chuck too. He was a take charge leader and put the boys straight to work unloading office furniture from a semi-trailer parked in the back of the building. The boys were thrilled because they like to work, in fact, they pretty much demand work. In short order, the trailer was empty and Uncle Chuck kept us moving with other serving opportunities in the storage area on the sales floor. Before we left, I asked Uncle Chuck to share his testimony. He was 13 when he got into—as he described it—“smoking, drinking, and whatever." Uncle Chuck is a great storyteller, our eyes were barely blinking. "I'm telling you this," his piercing blue eyes communicating as much as his words, "so that you don't make the same stupid mistakes I did. If you got Jesus, hold on to Him, don't let go." "Amen," I said, my video camera still rolling. Uncle Chuck's testimony was glorious. Devonte agreed sharing, “It inspired me to trust God more.” We set up camp at the Nashville KOA in a downpour. Thankfully, the storm passed as we drove downtown and had a great time eating nachos and listening to live country music in downtown Nasvhille. Gareth is a country boy through and through, so he was in the glory cloud. He spotted his prom date on the corner of 2nd and Browadway and on the way back to the campsite, he told me that he considered ditching the team and staying in Music City forever. He was not really serious, but he was not kidding either.
The Day the Roof Exploded
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The next day was a driving day—eight hours from Nasvhille, Tennessee to North Little Rock, Arkansas—but most memorably, it was the day when, in Noah's words, "the roof exploded." Before the roof story, however, I must report on our musical feast at the legendary King's Palace Cafe on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, where Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, B. B. King, and others created the Memphis Blues. We were gobbling up fried alligator bites, when blues man Sonny Mack and the Mack II band took over. As a seasoned high school teacher, I can assure you that it is a rare occasion when six teenagers sit still with their eyes glued to an adult in the front of a room. Mack took us on non-stop ride up, up and away into blues heaven. None of us wanted to come down, but we had to get to North Little Rock before sundown; and we were almost there when the roof exploded on Interstate 40. We were driving through another downpour, when a shearing gust of wind bisected the plastic cargo box on the roof. We pulled over. Gareth and I jumped out in time to witness the team’s sleeping bags and pillows run over by a convoy of semi-trucks. We strapped the box back together with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew and got back in the car smiling and soaking wet. It was a great relief to arrive at the home (not campsite) of Craig and Julie Loibner. The Loibners graciously allowed us to lodge at their home while they were out of town on a Young Life trip. The night ended with a display of culinary splendor. Ethan and I had served together on seven mission trips, but I had no idea that he was a really good cook. He enlisted Noah as an assistant, and the team was treated to a luscious dinner of mushroom chicken fettuccine Alfredo and a tossed salad. Truly, there are no limits to the good and perfect gifts that God sends down from the heavenly lights (James 1:17). Two of those gifts are a good meal and a good night’s sleep.
It Puts Your Faith Back in God and the Country
On April 27, 2014, a set of monster tornadoes twisted across Conway, Livonia, and Mayflower, Arkansas pulverizing hundreds of homes and killing 16 people. It was still morning when we arrived at the Simon family farm in Conway. Rick Simon greeted us beside a large concrete pad that used to support his home which a horizon blanketing tornado ground up into virtual non-existence. Most of the major debris removal on the farm was finished, so Mr. Simon took us to the home of an elderly widow named Maxinne Coughlin. Mrs. Coughlin’s home was rendered unlivable by a tornado that wielded a tree like an ax and split one side of the house in half. Our mission was to transport the remaining shards of wall and roof out to the street. As always, the boys worked unceasingly, and creatively, to finish the task. I was so proud of them. I could not help but think—If we were not at a disaster site in Conway, Arkansas, these boys would probably be still asleep, or groggily slurping a bowl of cereal and checking texts. What a difference a thousand miles can make! Back at the farm, we cleaned up debris and helped Mr. Simon’s son Kenny on a small anti-erosion project. Gareth was the project manager. Honus said, "The sort of work we did on the Simon farm may seem trivial or insignificant, but the focus is not on the manual labor, but in showing our support and love for them. We can influence the eternal realm in the temporal realm." The words "unbelievable" and "so sad" formed in my mind when Mr. Simon said, "This is actually our fourth total loss [of our home] out here on this farm since the year 1982." His home was destroyed twice by tornadoes and twice by lightning strikes. Mr. Simon’s gratitude for Project Compassion took on a patriotic tone. "This group we have out here from New York ... really speaks highly of this country. It puts your faith back in God and the country both. It shows us that we still have a good country and that we can make it." After Kenny treated us to lunch and conversation, we piled in the mini-van to meet Rev. Rennie Tarpley, a most unforgettable man of God.
You Guys Rocked Our Souls and Lit Our Flame
We met “Brother” Rennie at a ministry in Conway, and before we could say a word, he lined us up and declared, “It doesn't take many, to make a difference for Jesus today." Brother Rennie, age 66, is a divine force of nature and a kindred spirit in his no-limits approach to ministry. “Brother Peter,” he said, “ever since April 27, I have been riding the heavenly winds and I haven’t come down yet.” We served with Brother Rennie at various sites during the day and, unbeknownst to me, he tipped the local newspaper about our mission. Matt, Devonte, and I were interviewed over the phone and a photographer for the Log Cabin Democrat took photos of the team at the warehouse where we were sorting relief supplies. After a stop at McDonald’s for a “dollar menu” dinner, we joined Brother Rennie for worship at One Way House Church. Pastor Willie Robinson invited us to share testimonies. Ethan and Devonte both felt the Holy Spirit’s leading and they walked up to right the pulpit and testified. Ethan was first to speak. "I'm a thousand miles from home. I'm dirty. I'm filled with the Holy Spirit. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm going to be straight." "Go for it," said an encouraging voice from the front row. It was Brother Rennie. Ethan identified himself with the Prodigal Son and ended this way, "I was looking for God in the parties, but it wasn't until I went back to church that I found the real party. I feel like that's what God wanted me to tell you and I've shared it." Before the joyful echoing of Amens and Hallelujahs ended, Devonte was at the pulpit. "God is always doing something new, every day. God has been so great to me. ... We are here to serve, not to be served. We need to be doing something, not nothing. To me, drawing closer to God means following what He says and what He speaks to me.” Devonte and Ethan were only two of the six speakers on that eye-opening and heart-touching night at One Way. Before we returned to the Loibner home, Brother Rennie blessed the team. "I only work with the best; only the best; and you guys are the best." A month later, I was reflecting with Brother Rennie on the phone, and he said, “You guys rocked our souls and lit our flame.
What Y'all Doing is a Great Thing--Can't Be No Greater
New Orleans, Louisiana
Before we left Arkansas, we stopped at a gas station in Conway and—wow! what a surprise!—there we were, ProjectCompassion, on the front page of the Log Cabin Democrat. The feature article included a prominent photo of Devonte, Ethan, Honus, and Noah, and was headlined, "Helping Hands, New York Teens Volunteer for Tornado Relief." I was in state of joyful awe as we programmed the GPS for New Orleans and started rolling east. Honus recorded these words about the surprise coverage. "The recognition we got in Conway was a major blessing. It gave us the assurance that our ministry was spreading, and that we may have had a greater impact than we thought originally." On the road, the boys took turns riding shotgun which gave them song selection sovereignty. While spinning his country favorites, Gareth confidently declared, "Dr. Burch, if I won the lottery, I would buy an RV and drive around the country helping people." “Amen, to that,” I replied and added, “Well let’s pray that someone will donate an RV to Project Compassion.” We drove, and drove, and drove some more, and after nine hours, we arrived at a Super8 hotel in New Orleans, just in time to go to bed. When we woke up it was Saturday. Only four days left, but more blessings on the way. We endured a bland continental breakfast, and drove five miles down the road for a service project at Cummings-Wilson African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was 9 am and the temperature was already 90 degrees. “Brother” Nat greeted us at the main entrance with a glowing smile. He was overjoyed that we were going to be helping him work through a page-long checklist of projects. "You tell us what to do,” I told him, “and we will do it until it is done." And that is what Brother Nat did. Ethan and Honus cleaned a set of large air conditioning vents; while Gareth and Matt power-washed the parking lot; and Devonte and Noah cleaned everything in the fellowship hall. When those tasks were done, we did some more, and when all was done, Nat shared his testimony. What followed was, in my view, an indescribable experience, which I will try to describe anyway. Nat’s voice was all that was happening. It was as if nothing else had ever happened, and nothing else was ever going to happen. Nat talked about sin and sickness and miracles. He talked about angels and he talked about Christ and love. “I have so much love for you guys. You know why? I see Christ in you. I love Christ and I see Christ in y'all. What y'all doing is a great thing—can't be no greater." And there was silence and awe in the Shekinah glory of God. Later that evening, Noah said, "Nat's testimony really showcased God's love and His immense power and grace." When asked to identify his most meaningful spiritual event, Honus said, “Nat’s testimony.” Our next stop was the Lower Ninth Ward and the home of Rev. Charles and Thirawer Duplessis, leaders of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church.
It’s Just Rough
Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana
When we arrived, the Duplessises were not home, but their daughter was backing out of the driveway to take her boys for a haircut. Graciously, she took a moment to call her dad. "There are seven people from New York here who want to talk to you," she told him. I smiled, relishing that sentence. We were standing a few short blocks from the terrible spot where one of the levees failed and allowed a deadly deluge to enter destroy the Lower 9th. When the Duplessises arrived, they invited us in and started to retell their story, a sad story, a tragic story, and yet, in their telling, and in our hearing, an eternal theme rose and shone above all the heartbreak and loss, and the theme was—there is victory in Jesus. Mrs. Duplessis used these words, “It's just rough and, you know, that's why we got to keep praying, and don't stop, because we know who is in charge." I felt divinely privileged to be with the Duplessises, looking into their eyes, listening, and waiting for God to say, “There it is Peter, remember that.” And God did say something like that and here is what I remembered. Katrina’s victims are still dying of broken hearts; they are still taking their own lives; they are still losing their minds; they are still assuaging pain with drugs and alcohol; they are still waiting. Katrina’s victims still need compassion, in every form imaginable. We asked how we could be a blessing and Mrs. Duplessis asked us to pray for a family member. We did and we also made a commitment to contribute regularly to the $300,000 still needed to complete the construction of the new Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church. Remembering our visits with Brother Nat and the Duplessises, Honus said, "The entire experience in New Orleans was surreal, almost magical. The majesty of those moments was indescribable."
Our itinerary had the first leg of our trip ending in the Lower 9th, but somewhere between Conway and New Orleans, I added one more site—the Gulf of Mexico. I thought all of us would delight in telling family and friends that we made it to the Gulf of Mexico; after all, it sounds much more exotic and adventurous than—Lower 9th. So, it was off to Mississippi. Almost predictably, as we approached the gulf-side town of Waveland, it started to rain. We stopped at a grocery store and purchased the fixings for grilling. Dinner in hand, we asked a person for directions to the beach. She told us, and by the time we parked the car, the rain had stopped. The boys rolled their pants legs up and straightway they were walking out into the warm and shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I knelt on the beach and fired up the grill. As I watched the boys and tended to the hot dogs and sausage links, my heart filled up with the peace that passes all understanding. I was tired, really tired, but in that moment of peace, I felt fully rested, but God was not done blessing me. I was overwhelmed by feelings of joy and gratitude unto God, and added to those feelings, I was thankful beyond words for all that He has accomplished through Project Compassion. I will always remember the glorious evening at the Gulf of Mexico when God reminded me how blessed I am and how great He is. We devoured the food and took some time to just relax—and we really needed to relax before returning to New Orleans.
We Need to Go to a Hotel
Belden, Mississippi and Tupelo, Mississippi
We left the New Orleans Super8 destined for a campsite at Trace State Park in Belden, Mississippi. Our service project was set for the following morning in Tupelo where a tornado destroyed and damaged over 2,000 residences and 100 commercial structures (djournal.com). We were going to be removing a wood floor in one of the damaged structures. We never made it to the project. I will explain in a moment. We stopped at a Subway, which was inside a Walmart, for lunch and set out for the park. On the way, I remembered that we had not replaced the camping gear that was run over by the semi-trucks on I-40. We could have done that at Walmart, but the store was too far in the rear viewmirror to turn around. Noah came up with a plan. Three boys can sleep in the van, and the rest of us can make the best of it in a tent. The plan sounded good to me (especially since I still had my air mattress). The park ranger assigned us a picturesque lake-side site. Gareth leapt out of the van and started fishing, while the rest of us broke camp. It was a peaceful evening and I was still relishing my blessing at the Gulf. The sun disappeared leaving a raspberry reddish kiss on the canopy of the trees surrounding the lake. We dined on grilled chicken-fried steak patties and chips, not exactly mushroom chicken Alfredo, but it was tasty camping grub. It was getting dark and mosquitoes had started pumping operations; so we put Noah’s plan into motion. Ethan, Devonte, and Gareth lodged in the van. Matt, Noah, Honus and I were in the tent. Fans, powered by extension cords, were swirling in the tent and the van making the temperature almost bearable. In the tent, we folded towels into pillows and for blankets we used shirts. After some great conversations, I called for silence and fell asleep around midnight. I woke up wide awake ready to get the team fed and the way to our project in Tupelo—problem—it was only 2:51 am (I will never forget that time—2:51 am). I tried and tried to go back to sleep, but it was not going to happen. Not surprisingly, I was too uncomfortable; what was surprising is that I did not feel tired. Sometime before 3:00 am, I texted our project supervisor in Tupelo and, regretfully, cancelled. I was the only driver and I needed sleep. I got everyone up in the tent, which was easy because only Noah was asleep. “We need to go to a hotel,” I said. “Wise move,” said Ethan after I informed the boys in the van. We ended up paying almost full price for five hours sleep at a Tupelo hotel which, incidentally, was located right next to a two-story building with only three walls (tornado damage).
It Was an Empty Lot
Bardstown, Kentucky and New Albany, Ohio
We left the parking lot of the back-up plan to Noah’s plan around 10:00 am, and after rolling many miles, we checked into a really nice Best Western in a trendy Kentucky town called Bardstown. Since the very beginning of Project Compassion’s out-of-state travels, Ethan and Honus have been begging me to let them purchase fireworks in Pennsylvania for use back in New York. I had always refused explaining that Project Compassion’s mission did not include violating federal interstate commerce laws. However, after some research, we learned that fireworks were legal in virtually every state in the South. So, after dinner at Pizza Hut, we proceeded to the nearby fireworks tent. I donated $20 and the boys paid for the rest of our pyro-technic arsenal. We located a park on the town map, but when we got there it looked more like an empty lot (Honus still insists it was someone’s yard). It was an empty lot (probably owned by someone, I’ll cede Honus that point). We could not afford the high-flying Roman candles, but, I must admit, it was a lot of fun hearing the sounds and watching the dark sky light up with colors. Fireworks are cool, no doubt about that, and our low-flying amateur show was a great way to celebrate the almost end of an unforgettable trip. After enjoying a delicious and well-stocked continental breakfast, we made the short 4-hour trip to my brother’s home in New Albany, Ohio, just in time to watch the United States lose to Belgium in the World Cup. I am a huge fan of the “beautiful game,” so the loss was heartbreaking. David had just the remedy for my sadness, an evening at the New Albany Country Club. The boys goofed around in the pool, but since none of them knew how to dive, I took the liberty of demonstrating the elementary forward dive (which I over-rotated). David let us order at will from the grill and a waiter delivered the meals to our pool-side lounge chairs. After 9-days dedicated to serving others, it was strange to be served by someone else. Honus referred to the last few days of the trip as “anticlimactic.” I understood what he meant and disagreed, but I did not tell him so at the time. If I were to have told him, I would have said something to this effect—there are no anti-climactic days, or even moments, in the presence of the risen Christ.
Rochester, New York and Smithfield, New York
David left early and brought back breakfast for team. I am so blessed to have such a caring and generous brother. After stopping at a Starbucks for my coffee fix, we typed “Rochester” in the GPS and set out to finish the last 384 miles of our 2,800 mile mission. The boys talked, slept, listened to music, and before lunch we were in Pennsylvania. The boys then talked more, slept more, listened to more music, ate one last Dollar Menu meal, and we were in New York. Gareth and Matt live near to each other, just off the thruway, so I dropped them off first. I told the boys to hug their mothers and they did. Forty-five minutes later, we were at The Charles Finney School where the rest of the parents were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their sons. The hugs and happy reunions made me feel good because it implied that I had fulfilled my most important responsibility—bringing all the boys back safe. Mike VanLeeuwen was also in the parking lot when we arrived. He praised our efforts and that also made me feel good. When the last missionary left the parking lot, I flipped the car keys to Devonte and he drove us home. When we turned into our driveway, the family rushed out to welcome us and it was joyous collision of hugs and kisses. I went upstairs and stayed as close as I could to my beautiful wife Holly. ...
Before 10 days had passed, a Project Compassion team was on the road again. A tornado struck Smithfield, New York destroying four home and killing four people. We cleaned up debris at the disaster site and prayed for survivors.
Doing Something is Greater Than Doing Nothing
During Project Compassion's first two exhilarating and unimaginable years, Finney students have brought acts of compassion to people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana. By God's grace and leading, we will continue to serve those in need with a "no-limits" determination. Planning has already begun for a return trip to the Deep South next summer; an eighth disaster relief trip to Highlands, New Jersey; and this November, our first international mission trip to serve at an orphanage in Malawi, Africa. To learn more about The Charles Finney School, visit finneyschool.org. To learn more about Project Compassion, visit dosomethinggreater.com, click on “videos,” and watch our documentary called UNIMAGINABLE..Rev. Dr. Peter Edward Burch, PhDJuly 2014, Webster, New York