It was a trashy idea. And, ultimately, a redemptive one.
A church youth group made their way to inner-city Memphis, Tenn., to help Brinkley Heights Baptist Church conduct a week-long Vacation Bible School for children.
They'd prepared for weeks to perfect their ministry. Each person had an assigned job and was eager to serve.
Upon arriving in Memphis, however, they discovered that Tim Cox, Brinkley Heights' pastor, had an additional assignment in mind.
The church — which has hosted thousands of volunteers the past six years to assist its members, most of whom live and work in the community, in a range of ministries to their inner-city neighbors — was interested in beginning an outreach in another neighborhood.
In order to gain credibility with the people in the community, Cox said he wanted the residents to witness an act of selfless love.
"Would this group be willing to pick up garbage during the afternoons following VBS?" the pastor asked.
Mindful of their calling to serve others, the group accepted the additional assignment.
Trash was everywhere the following afternoon as the van pulled up to the street, and an audible sigh swept through the group.
Slowly the youth and adults got out of the van and began the long, hard labor of picking up the garbage.
When Cox returned later in the afternoon to retrieve the group, he immediately sensed anger from many of the volunteers. Upon returning to Brinkley Heights, Cox decided to address the unspoken issues openly.
When pressed to express their thoughts, many of the youth and a few of the adults fell into a cycle of blame.
"Why should I have to pick up their trash?" asked one.
"If they don't care about their home, why should I?" prodded another.
"If they weren't so lazy, we wouldn't have to be doing their work for them," another said indignantly.
After allowing the group to voice their frustrations, Cox calmly reminded them that Christ did not come to blame or point fingers or scold the poor — He came to serve them. However, he did add that the group did not have to return to pick up garbage the next day if they chose not to. Then he asked the group to join him in prayer.
With their hearts turned toward God, the anger and blame in the hearts of the volunteers turned to tender love.
One teenage boy, touched by the realization of Christ's message to serve, prayed earnestly, "God, help me to pick up the trash cheerfully tomorrow. And make me ever-mindful of how much trash You have cleaned out of my own heart."
The next afternoon, the group decided unanimously to return to the neighborhood to finish cleaning up, and when they arrived at the street where they had left off, they were greeted by the sight of several neighborhood residents cleaning up garbage.
Cox said it was a humbling moment for everyone, himself included. The youth group spent the afternoon talking, laughing, cleaning, and getting to know the residents. As stereotypes gave way to relationships, blame gave way to love.
The experience taught an invaluable lesson, Cox recounted. Miracles happen when people are given a little hope and shown they are loved. That day, each group — the youth volunteers and the neighborhood residents — went away blessed and touched by God.