One congregation’s sweaty spiritual practice

by Ken Sehested

Just this past week one of my congregation’s mission groups, MercyMovers, completed its forty-third moving job, helping members (and a few other special cases) lug their stuff to a truck or other vehicles, then travel to their new home for unloading. (A few times only loading, as a tangible blessing for those moving elsewhere.)

We—Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC—have been at this for most of our 21-year history. So we average about two per year. Sometimes it was a small group of us—four-to-five, using a pickup and several cars. One involved 16 volunteers and took most of the day loading and unloading a 26-foot rental truck and ten or so cars carrying fragile things and miscellaneous other items too odd-shaped to box up.

What we discovered is that this is a profound form of pastoral accompaniment. You probably know from experience what an emotionally and physically exhausting experience this has been in your own life. It always—always—takes long than it should to sort through accumulated stuff. (We almost always fill up our living space to its maximum capacity.) Then decide what we need to get rid of. Find suitable boxes. Suffer though the dust that gets kicked up. (Dust aggregates, especially in unseen surfaces.)

The work generates far more anxiety than it should, not to mention the bone-tiredness and emotional disorientation. It’s a timely occasion to have friends willing to get sweaty and risk sore muscles on your behalf. It is a significant (often overlooked) form of pastoral care.

Our volunteer movers have been as old as 84 and as young as six. Everyone is cautioned to know and honor their strength and energy limits, to stay hydrated, and rest as needed, or call it quits if a back begins to ache. The group may vary on each occasion, some coming for a short time, others staying the course. It’s not a competition.

The idea for this mission group probably emerged during a church potluck dinner. Someone grumbles about needing to move. “ I may be able to help with that, says a person across the table. “When are you moving? I’ll help if I can,” says another.

The next occasion—and maybe the next—was probably the same, all very informal. By now, word was getting out about this very corporeal form of the Apostle’s admonition: “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Can you grasp here the insistent affirmation of biblical materialism? Tangible care (which might involve sweat and muscle strain, not to mention inconvenience and imposition) as the embodiment of prayer? Yet for the spiritually formed, neither sweat nor strain, neither inconvenience nor imposition, are obstacles to the sweet joy of bearing one another’s burdens. The costs, compared to covenant delight, are incomparable. Under such terms, the yoke becomes easy; the burden, light.

I had some experience doing such moves while in seminary. One of the many part-times jobs I had to fund my education was doing moving jobs, renting a truck and, along with a friend, hiring out our labor. Good spatial vision enabled me to put many things in small places.

At some point I volunteered myself to be the coordinator for actively enlisting and coordinating volunteers for this MercyMover mission. Our congregation is not poor; but the cost of professional movers would be a stretch for most of our folk. Though cost-saving was not the core of our vision. It is a kind of spiritual practice—and, often, sweaty.

One of my favorite memories from this work occurred while helping Kelsey and Jordan, a young couple, move into a new home. Besides the 8-9 members of the Circle, there were two from the couple’s county-league volleyball team. Near the end of the move, one of them said to Kelsey and Jordan, “I had no idea you had so many friends that love you like we do.”

After reading the draft of this article one of our regular volunteers said “make sure you say how much laughter breaks out during these events. And then stand around telling stories while eating pizza after we’re done.”

You might say, well, this is a ministry, not a mission. I’m aware of that distinction—the former, care within the congregation; the latter, ministry beyond our walls— though I’m not fond of it. It is useful for some kinds of strategic planning. But the fact is, these two qualities are fluid. In doing our mission, we learn about our ministry; in pursuing our ministry, we sharpen our attention to our mission.

If each of these two intersections of where the Spirit traffics in human affairs—if the one point of attention does not inform and sharpen and invigorate the other—our vision is out of focus.

Over the years, we have developed a fair bit of expertise in helping people think through all that needs to happen before and during a move. Several years ago, when my friend Karl assumed the MercyMover coordinator role, he and I collected what we’ve learned into a five-page document titled “Getting ready to move: Things to think about.”

Sustaining congregational vigor entails finding a wide assortment of occasions for members to gather—formally or informally, in small groups or as a whole, often with a specific purpose, especially when it is member-initiated and doesn’t add an additional responsibility to a pastor’s crowded schedule. Such occasions provide space for knowing and being known, time for laughter and storytelling, building on the bonds that bring the community together for worship and prayer and study. (It’s why “fellowship halls” were invented.)

Sharing the burden of relocating one’s residence is one way to create “the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.”

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