By John Hall
Tonight, the corner of Cracker Barrel is sacred ground. And it's not because of the heavenly biscuits.
Roughly 10 people gather around a table that nearly runs the length of one of the restaurant's walls, exchanging hugs and handshakes before sitting at carefully chosen chairs. When they notice there's not enough room for everyone, they pull up another table. There's always room here.
The conversation is lively and upbeat. Their laughter wafts across the restaurant like the scent of chicken and dumplings coming out of the kitchen. Discussion dances throughout the group, covering the latest events in their lives, family, friends and work.
But the conversation always returns to one topic: The children of Oaxaca.
More than anything, it's what binds them. They’ve all served vulnerable children there during a Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls mission trip. Some of them have been to the area multiple times. Kneeling before impoverished children, washing their feet and fitting them with a pair of shoes changes a person, they agree.
In many ways, the experience is still changing the members of Bayside Baptist Church in Harrison, Tenn. When they talk about their various trips, the look in their eyes change. They speak in the present tense as if they’re still there.
[caption id="attachment_8528" align="alignright" width="300"] Don Popovich fits a child with new shoes during a 2011 Shoes for Orphan Souls trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.[/caption]
Vernon Ellis vividly remembers a young child named Lucy, who placed her hands in his and led him to meet her mother. Don and Cathy Popovich keep a picture of a child from Oaxaca, reminding them to pray for the children of the area each day.
"There's so much love down there in those kids," Vernon Ellis says. "You wash the kids' feet, put the shoes on their feet. You look up, and they smile."
Several people around the table nod in affirmation as Vernon speaks. The trip is difficult to make, and participants work hard helping children. Still, they actively recruit other people to go with them.
God is present there like He is here this night -- in every word of every conversation, in the midst of each relationship in this tight-knit group. He calls them to Oaxaca, then gives them the privilege of seeing how lives are changed when His followers are obedient.
During the trips, those around the table tonight have seen God work in wondrous ways. They've seen Him provide just the right sized shoes for the children they encounter. They've seen two people who speak different languages bond over shared experiences. People receive help. People find and embrace Christ.
Putting shoes on the feet of vulnerable children is the group's assigned task. Giving young people a glimpse of God's love is the mission that crosses cultural and language barriers.
"It's not all about shoes," Johnnie Johnson says. "A bunch of people were saved down there."
At the other end of the table, Don says that's precisely why members of the group keep going to Oaxaca, why they relive their trips as often as they can. There, they feel closest to Christ. There, they get a sense they are doing exactly what He wants.
"It's an experience God gives you," he says. "It's nothing you accomplished. It's something God accomplished through you."
Juanita Hall quickly chimes in: "If you've never been on a mission trip, you don't understand. If you go once, you'll never stop going."
The restaurant is now nearly empty. Johnnie’s granddaughter is asleep on his chest. No one wants to stop visiting, but they each realize it's time. As the night winds down and they head home, they know they'll always have Oaxaca.
"We'll be in heaven one day and will be talking about this," Johnnie says on his way to the cash register. Tonight, they've already experienced a small piece of it.
Experience "a small piece of heaven" this year on a Buckner mission trip. Check out the 2014 trip calendar here.
By John Hall