Baseball Cards and Clothes Pins
This year itís going to be my eighth trip to Central Appalachia. The Appalachia Service Project is a week long mission trip that our church has been going on the past eight years. We call it ASP for short. In June of 2001, was when thirteen excited but scared people would become pioneers in their church. Myself and three other adults packed up nine willing teenagers and headed for McDowell County West Virginia. Our home for the next week would be Panther Middle School. Panther to the others that week would be home, but to me it was so much more.
As soon as we arrived there I was over taken with emotions. It was like I was there before even though I hadnít. I felt very comfortable and very relaxed. Everyone else was a little apprehensive and really didnít know what to expect. I didnít feel that way. I was at peace with myself and at peace with the mountains, I felt like I was at home.
On the evening of the Sunday when you arrive, you are taken to meet your family for the first time and check out what your project will be for the week. I climbed in a van with three other crews and my Appalachian journey began. We were at the last home we needed to see that evening and everything was going great. I was sitting the van while one of the crews was inside with their family and checking out theyíre weekly assignments.
I know everyone at least one time or another has had something happen in their lives that they will always remember. When you hear a certain song on the radio or when an unrecognizable scent becomes recognized, but only by you and it takes you back to that special time. I guess you can say those are kind of like life changing memories or life changing moments. I know that I have had of a few moments like that in my life. What I didnít know was, that I was about to have another one that day. As I sat in the van watching some kids riding their bikes outside, God whispered in my ear and told me to go out and play.
I know the ASP rule is while out on a home visit that the other crews are to remain in the vehicle. But God said to go out and play and once God gets involved the rules change. And just for the record in the last seven years doing ASP, I believe that is the one and only time I ever got out of the vehicle. When God calls, you gotta go.
As I got out of the van and stepped onto the dirt road we were on I was welcomed by Billy. At the time Billy was probably about eight years old. There we were standing in front of the van and he says ďHi Iím Billy, who are you?Ē as I shook his hand I told him my friends call me Espo. He didnít say anything, he just looked at me. So I told him my last name was Esposito and that my nick name was Espo. He still didnít say anything but I did get the ok nod.
As I was talking with Billy the vision of him will be forever etched in my mind. He was standing there in front of me with no shirt on. His pants were held up with a piece of rope and the pant legs only reached down to about mid calf, and they were torn. He wore no socks and the sneakers he had on, had no laces. He probably hadnít had a bath for a week or so and his teeth were brown. Not because he didnít brush them, but because the child chewed tobacco.
Our brief but wonderful relationship and conversation continued and went something like this. Billy looked me straight in the eyes and said ďI have a problem, do you think you can help me with it?Ē I told him I couldnít make any promises but I would see what I could do. He asked me if I had any baseball cards or playing cards in our vehicle. I told him sorry I didnít and asked what he needed them for. He told me that his clothes pin broke and his baseball card got shredded in the spokes of his rear tire. He said he needed new cards to make his bike sound like a dirt bike again.
I told Billy that I would get him some cards and some new clothes pins and that by tomorrow morning he would be all set and good to go. I told him your bike will be so loud in the morning youíll be waking up all your neighbors. Billy asked me what time I was coming back in the morning and I told him I wasnít coming back, that I would be working at another home. Again he just looked at me, but this time with different eyes. These were the eyes of a rejected kid who was trying to hang on to any hope he left. I assured him though that his repair kit would be there in the morning.
Now just as Iím waiting for our conversation to go to the next level, Billyís brother rides by on his bike. He turns around on his bike and heads back towards us. As he approaches us Billy takes a couple of steps to his left, then clears his throat and spits on his brother as he passes by. Now, me being a fourteen year old stuck in a forty something body, I thought that was pretty funny. And Billy was so proud of himself. yelling ďDid you see that, I got him right in the neck.Ē Again the fourteen year old in me wanted to say nice shot, but I had to be the adult and tell him that wasnít very nice. And Billy assured me that was a game they always play and that his brother would get him back sooner or later.
The home visit was over and it was time to leave and Billy asked me again what time I would be back in the morning. Again I had to tell him I wouldnít be back, that the group getting in the van was going to be his crew. And with a stern look on his face and a mouth full of chew, he kind of growled out ďI donít want them, I want you.Ē This was the beginning of hash marks being placed on my heart. I shook Billyís hand and I told him I hope to see him at the family picnic on Thursday, but that was the last time I saw him.
That night I went across the street to the Handi Mart and got Billy the things he needed along with some other goodies for him and his brother. I gave them to one of the teenagers on that crew and asked them to please give this to Billy. That night I asked the young man who delivered for me if Billy said anything. He told me no, he just looked at me and smiled and then ran away. He didnít say anything, not even thank you. I looked up at him and said, ďYes he did.Ē
The rest of the week went well; we were all working hard on the projects at our sites. All week though I kept hearing little bits and pieces about this kid on one of the sites whoís name was Billy, none of which was positive. Thursday came along and we were all at the family picnic, and I was hoping to see Billy there so we could talk some more. But Billy and his family never showed. Most of the families were able to make it, and that was great to see. Everyone was having a good time fellowshipping and sharing stories. I was off to the side eating a hamburger and listening to a young lady who was working at Billyís house. She was telling some of her friends that weíre at a different site how this kid was a brat and a real pain in the butt. She went on to tell that Billy was always yelling at the girls. Every time we would stop for a water break, he would yell at us and sometimes push and hit us.
She said that kid was never happy with theyíre work and would push them around. And when they pushed back Billy would sometimes spit at them. I didnít say anything, I was just taking it all in. Actually the whole week was like that, I just observed everything and absorbed as much of the week as I could. As I look back at that week it was a huge training session for me through the eyes of the Lord. I saw and heard things no one else would and I smelled and tasted things no one else could. The Lord was about to lay on me an important life lesson on me and I was about to recognize it and never forget it.
Back then before I became the youth leader at our church, I was the new kid on the block in our youth group and was just trying to stay a float. What I didnít understand was that the Lord was my raft and together we would be sailing with one another. I learned so much about myself and the Lord that week, that the hairs still stand up on the back of my neck when ever I think about it. I would listen to the other team from our church talk about how wonderful the woman they spent the week with. We had a great family but we didnít bond with them like the other crew did. But Thursday night after the family picnic the Lord put it all in perspective for me.
I realized that the path the Lord wanted me on, needed me to have the lesser of the two relationships in order to see things more clearly. I wanted to be at Billyís house but couldnít because my adult partner was once married to an abusive husband. You see Billyís father would be away working in the coal mines for a week at a time. Billy felt obligated to fill his fatherís shoes while he was gone. Even though Billy was only eight, he had to run things, he was to be the man of the house. And when things werenít going as planned, Billy would have to step in and correct it.
Thatís why he was always on the girls. He was walking in his fatherís shoes. Billy would watch his father hit his mother when things werenít done to his likings. Billy was setting the tempo, he was leading by example. It was weird, all week I felt like a fish staring at the worm. And every time I went to bite the hook, it moved. God taught me about patience and how important it was. God showed me and let me feel a new and different kind of love. He taught me how to see things through someone elseís eyes. I was taught not to judge and to see both sides of the coin. He made my senses come alive and as long as Iím alive they will never die. And for the rest of my life I will see, taste and hear things differently than others. And to this day I still do.
It was a beautiful evening that Thursday when the Lord finally let the fish bite the hook. But the best part about that night was the fisherman wasnít going to eat the fish. He had no intention of gutting the fish and tossing it on the fire. He gently held the fish in His hands and caressed it. He then placed it back into the water and watched it as it splashed around like a new born being baptized and then watched it swim away as it breathed in new life.
Itís funny how the Lord can make our paths cross with one another. I didnít realize that day the impact Billy that would have on my life. How my passion for the Appalachian Mountains and itís families would be sparked by this young man. A passion that was ignited by an eight year old boy who I only talked to for ten minutes and who I would never see again. And I pray that I made a difference in his life even if it was only with a deck of cards and a couple of clothes pins.
All the circumstances that surround these paths as they are being crossed always amaze me. All the bridge building that has to take place for these meetings and all the situations that have to happen in order for these paths to cross. And also all the particulars that have to happen to these paths, to keep them from ever crossing again.
I had a wonderful time that week in Appalachia. Saturday morning as we were saying our good-byís and getting ready to leave, I looked up at the top of the mountain behind the school as the mist was lifting off the trees like a warm blanket. Kind of like what a father would do to his child, waking them before he leaves for work to say good-by. It was like watching our heavenly Father remove the blanket from us, and saying good-by. I also remember standing there and thinking to myself, John Denverís right, West Virginia is almost heaven.
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