Inclined Toward Justice

When Cliff Joens called me and invited me to come build a handicapped ramp with a group in the Tryon church that’s been doing it 10 years, I immediately felt insecure. My abilities in the construction trade are limited to what my Dad taught me decades ago and what I’ve HAD to learn as a homeowner, buttressed by my wife’s fearlessness in learning and trying new things.

At the same time, I also knew what Cliff told me next: that the crew members’ abilities varied from “expert” to “helper,” and that I would find a place in the “helper” category, no problem.

And in ministry, you always find yourself doing things that put you out of your depth, simply in order to get to know the people you work side-by-side with. At the end of the morning, before the heat and humidity really got going, we had a finished product to be proud of, and a grateful homeowner whose life was made easier by the ramp we built.

According to the most recent statistics I found,

  • Over 14% of North Carolina’s population has a disability;

  • Over 39% of adults age 65 and older have a disability, a percentage that is higher the older the age;

  • Of the 7.8 million North Carolinians 15 years old and above, 16% reported at least one disability;

  • 717,000 had serious difficulty walking and/or climbing stairs.

So the ministry of the ramp builders of the Tryon church is directed at people living in poverty or low income as well as having disabilities—in other words, people who need a ramp because of their mobility issues, but who cannot afford to have one built.

We arrived bright and early at Mrs. Gates’ trailer in rural Mill Spring, NC, on the morning of July 9th; Cliff had picked me up at the church at 6:25am, as we wanted to get an early start, before the real heat came up.

A group that’s been building these ramps for 10 years has definitely evolved a ramp design and a system for building them that works, and they’ve built 12 of them, in a variety of situations. Mrs. Gates’ trailer is on a hillside with two or three others, up a gravel driveway in the red-clay landscape of rural western North Carolina.

The site isn’t too far away from the small towns of Columbus and Tryon, but it seems isolated, an isolation made worse by the fact that when Mrs. Gates had a doctors’ appointment or needed to go shopping for groceries, her son had to carry her down the trailer steps to the car.

A ramp request comes to the church’s Board of Outreach from a social worker at Thermal Belt Outreach Ministries or the local St. Luke’s Hospital. Once a request is agreed to, Cliff sets building dates and solicits volunteers. There’s a core group of experienced ramp builders in the church, which makes it easy for neophytes like me to plug in and have a good time and sense of accomplishment.

I came on the second day of construction, and we completed the ramp by 11am. Through it all, I made some new friends, and when I saw these guys at worship on Sunday or at board or committee meetings afterwards, we already had a relationship established.

There’s a way, too, in which a pastor who participates in hands-on projects like this one establishes relationships on a different basis than if their only experience is on the pastor’s terms, such as worship, board and committee meetings, and the office.

Ministry is always about getting out of one’s comfort-zone, and I believe I learn more about who church members really are by getting out of mine.

Thanks to Cliff for asking me to take part, and to Manfred, Warner, Brian, Ron, Doug, and Mike, who were my teammates that day. And to the previous day’s team members who got us a good start on the project: the two Bobs, Barney, and Bill. And Doug, Mike and Cliff, who worked both days.


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