When I picked the name “Mission Memphis” for this project, I wanted to convey that you can make a difference in the world and do mission work without even leaving your community. I have never done this type of work in a different country, so my vision of this outreach is only what I have pieced together in my own mind: whole families living in small shacks, dirt floors, no electricity or running water. I understand that some people are looking for that experience and are willing to travel great distances for that type of work. Incredibly, those living conditions exist just 30 minutes from Memphis in Fayette County, Tennessee.
Sister Elaine Wicks decided to start an outreach mission and devoted much of her life to providing food, clothing, and hope to this secluded community. Eventually, she included Shona Moore in this work and together they spearheaded this grass roots project. Inevitably, Sister Elaine grew very ill and before her death, she decided to entrust her project to Shona. When Sister Elaine asked her to take over, Shona agreed: “Because really – what do you say to a dying nun?”
Project Outreach is based at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Germantown and they partner with the Church of God in Christ deep in Fayette County. I was glad to learn that several churches from different denominations in the Memphis area also support this project. I love to see that people of different beliefs can come together in order to help others and that spirit of cooperation is tangible with this group.
My parents have been working with Project Outreach for years and on the drive this morning they explained the well-rehearsed drill. Everyone meets in a Collierville parking lot and you’ll see 15-20 cars loaded down with food and clothing. The group travels by caravan out the site – well, the group except for my Dad who makes it his mission to be first out of the parking lot! When we arrived we passed through the gates to the property and rumbled down the gravel road to the pavilion. The parade reached the pavilion and as if by silent cue, the drivers backed their cars to the opening. The car was barely in park when volunteers sprung from the pantry, instantly formed an assembly line and then whisked the bags into the back room.
My parents have made many trips out to Fayette County and they’ve learned many things about the community and are well prepared for the trip. After unloading the cars, my mom reached into the front seat and handed me six roles of toilet paper. I looked at her dumbfounded. There are very small bathrooms on the property, but toilet paper is a luxury that’s hard to come by. Our first order of business was stocking the tiny bathrooms, which had been meticulously cleaned by several of the ladies in the community. Walking back from the bathrooms, we stopped to help sort the donated clothing, which was being carefully displayed on tarps covering half of the makeshift basketball court. The other half of the court was firmly claimed for its intended purpose. There were a handful of people sorting, while quite a few residents waited quietly around the perimeter for the opportunity to pick through the piles.
Over the years my parents have built relationships with several residents in the community and I was looking forward to meeting them. “You have to meet Connell” my mom said. “He’s always here early to help.” This picture doesn’t do him justice. When my dad walked over to him, Connell lit up like a kid a Christmas and he had that look of joy on his face the rest of the morning. I can see why my parents like him so much. He’s kind, hard working, and he laughs at my dad’s jokes.
My mom and dad had described Rice Smith – a large man with a kind heart, one lung, and a spirit for hard work. I’d heard them talk about Rice before. They donated my sister’s car to him several years ago and he used it to shuttle others to and from their doctors appointments. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to meet this incredible man. The life of a rural poverty in Fayette County takes a toll on people and this morning we learned that Rice died yesterday. Connell didn’t want to talk about it.
As the crowd began to grown, I studied the people gathered together. There was an older lady with a weathered face, very thin arms and a golden turban. I wish I had a picture of her. I noticed that she was shivering. It wasn’t as cold as usual, but she was so small that a strong breeze could have carried her away. I wondered why she didn’t move to a nearby car for warmth and realized that she and everyone else were perched – waiting to make sure they secured a spot in the line. When I looked back a few minutes later, she was wearing an oversized coat and the man next to her now he had arms wrapped tightly across his chest.
I peeked into the back pantry. It was bare when we arrived and within 45 minutes, it was stocked to the brim with more food at the ready in the parking lot. In the center of the pavilion, tables sprung up from nowhere and as if by magic were filled with fresh food – pears, apples, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Each family would leave with a bag of canned goods, a sack of produce and a Thanksgiving turkey.
Our neighboring county has been listed as the third poorest county in the entire nation and many will never leave the few miles around their homes. Today, I had an opportunity to learn about rural poverty and meet the families in need. After several hours, the food and clothing were distributed and we went to say goodbye to Connell. When my mom and I found him, he asked if we would be back next month to help with the Christmas distribution. My dad was really disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to make it next month, but Connell seemed most upset by this news. I put my hand on Connell’s should and said, “Don’t worry – I’ll be here next month and I have my Dad’s terrible sense of humor.” Connell roared with laughter and hugged me.
As we drove the gravel road back to the gate and out of the gate I looked out the window and then asked my mom to double back. I realized that either side of the entrance had a statue of Jesus with His arms outstretched. We pulled up, I looked more closely and realized that one of the statues was broken – Jesus was missing his right hand. I said “I guess I’ll take a picture of the other one.” I went to the gate and walked toward the intact statue. But then I turned and looked at the broken one. Many of the people who come through these gates are hardened and broken down by a hard life, but all are welcome here. Today, everyone received kindness and hope regardless of the exterior. I knelt and took a picture of the beautiful broken statue.
How to Help
The most helpful thing you can do for Project Outreach right now is to donate. You can make a monetary contribution or you can give food and clothing. Fresh produce seems to be especially needed. The project is currently well-staffed by parishioners from the supporting churches, but sometimes there are open spots for new volunteers. For more information on supporting Project Outreach or other initiatives to help those in Fayette County, contact Shona Moore at email@example.com.
If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thinking about helping is the first step!