Last Saturday I telephoned a high school friend of mine. When he picked up, I could hardly hear him: there was so much noise in the background. He said, "Wait just a moment until I can get outside." In about fifteen seconds he continued: "On Saturday mornings I usually go to auctions to buy sewing machines and bicycles. It was so noisy in there I could hardly hear you." He didn't need to tell me what he wanted the sewing machines and bicycles for; I knew.
Nearly seventeen years ago, he and his wife lost their 34 year old son to cancer. A friend of the son who attended the funeral was doing mission work in the Ukraine and offered to take the son's clothing back with him to the impoverished nation where so many people were without adequate clothing. The parents were pleased to think their son's clothing could be put to good use. This was the beginning of an amazing mission project that has grown into a year-around work and has involved people and organizations from a large geographical area.
My friend and his wife were members of a relatively small Christian church in a medium-sized town in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri. They were joined by other members of their church in gathering what they called "gently-used clothes -- clothing that was suitable to be sent to the city of Kharkov in the Ukraine. At first, they did not collect all that much clothing and had trouble getting what little clothing they were able to collect shipped to the Ukraine with any kind of assurance that the shipments would reach their intended destinations.
In a nearby Missouri city there were several mission groups that had worked together for a number of years in collecting clothes for impoverished countries and had established a successful year-around clothing drive and dependable means of transportation and distribution. Learning of the problems my friend's church was having in shipping clothes to the Ukraine, they agreed to help them in making the shipments. That worked at first, but before too many years the church was so successful in gathering clothes that the need became obvious for a different method of getting their goods to the Ukraine.
My friend's wife learned of a 501(c)(3) inter-denominational organization in Kentucky that combines evangelism with delivery of food and clothing and other needed goods and services to impoverished international locations. The organization partners with other organizations and has the facilities, equipment, and connections needed to ship large quantities of goods to remote locations and get them in the hands of the people who need them. After meeting with representatives from the church, the large Kentucky organization invited the small church to partner with it in shipping clothing to the Ukraine.
The church hesitated to accept the invitation, fearing it would not be able to collect enough clothing to merit being a partner, but the congregation ultimately decided to become one of the partners. To make a long story short, over an eleven-year period, the church, working with people throughout the community and surrounding areas, has collected and shipped over 600,000 pounds of clothing to the Ukraine and some countries in Africa. Last year alone it shipped 72,000 pounds, and this year the church expects that two eighteen-wheelers will be needed to take the clothing to the shipping headquarters in Kentucky.
But it doesn't stop there. As an extension of the clothing program, women from the community meet at the church one day a month to make lap robes, baby quilts, and baby buntings, which are shipped along with the clothing. Lap robes are given to the elderly and baby items to new mothers.
And why was my friend at an action buying sewing machines and bicycles? As his wife said, "So many people in this country don't sew anymore, but that doesn't mean their sewing machine can't go on to serve in other parts of the world." The church has added sewing machines to the things they collect, and there is a man in a neighboring town who, as a volunteer, repairs the machines that are not in good working order. The church also collects accessories that go along with sewing, such as scissors, seam rippers, spools of thread, and extra cloth. The sewing machines are shipped to Togo in Africa and Honduras in Central America where women are taught how to use and care for the machines and how to use the machines in caring for their families.
And what about the bicycles? They are shipped along with spare parts primarily to Ghana, Africa. Many people there have no other means of transportation. And volunteers go along with the bikes and spare parts and help train people there in establishing their own repair shops. Along with the organization in Kentucky, nearly 500 bicycles have been collected, repaired, and shipped.
And the list of other things goes on and on -- quilts, mattresses, and playground equipment. And not only are "things" sent, but people go to various third world countries and help find adoptive homes for children in orphanages.
All in all, a mother and a father have turned their grief into a note-worthy international outreach program of love and concern for others.
As a parish minister for many years, I have seen individuals and families deal with grief and tragedies in various ways -- sometimes in negative ways and other times in positive ways. The response of my friend and his wife -- regular Christian people in a typical Midwestern town in the heart of the USA -- demonstrates the best of living one's Christian faith. I am reminded of James 2:14-26, and especially of verse 17 ("So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead") and verse 26 ("So faith apart from works is dead") [quoting from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible].
Early Christians were debating whether one is justified in God's eyes by faith alone, or by works alone, or if it took a combination of faith and works. James took a stand on this issue, not by presenting a long theological explanation, but by giving a very practical example that related to everyday life.
I relate this story about my friend not to stir a theological debate or to solicit clothes and money for a significant relief program resulting from one family's grief. I intentionally did not mention my friend's name, the church he is a member of, the town in Missouri, or the organization in Kentucky. I wanted this to be an example of how grief can be channeled into something very productive and rewarding. In my opinion, this is an example of what I believe to be one of the great attributes of America -- reaching out to others in need.
What you make of your grief is up to you.