March 2008, Lake Charles, Louisiana
We shuffle into to the small all-purpose room of a church in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The round tables and chairs are set up just like the nights before, and the usual dinner spread is set out buffet-style on a rectangular table off to the side. The fluorescent lights in the drop-tile ceiling seem to all be different shades of yellowy green.
The week has been full and fun. We had driven down from Ames, Iowa. We stopped nearly every hour for a certain someone to use a restroom or usually the roadside, and I confessed that I found serial killers to be quite fascinating.
We had worked hard and played hard. Interacted with real life crocodiles, found a dead sea turtle, thrifted at Goodwill, ate at Sonic, played so many rounds of Pepper, and had the strangest experience dancing at a club. (This little town totally had a nightlife culture of its own.) Some of us had been friends since middle school, and some of us met for the first time on this trip. But just one week, and each friendships had resulted in lots of inside jokes and deep conversations.
Megan, Justin V, and I talk and laugh about the full day spent restoring a home ruined in Hurricane Rita a few months before. We talk especially about the stuff we found: An old toy typewriter, a stretchy plastic manatee — which Justin and I would trade off like a child with shared custody for months after — and a comb.
The local church’s staff members — the ones who facilitated our spring break service week in Lake Charles — are there, but there’s someone new hanging around, too. Someone dressed more professionally. Not in t-shirts with stray (and sometimes intentional) paint marks, dirty gym shorts, and our oldest pairs of tennis shoes.
Someone speaks loudly over us to get our attention. Someone special is here to thank us for our volunteering of the week. Even though our volunteering was honestly so insignificant. Cleaning, restoring, and painting Miss Ruby’s house. (While painting tights spaces in the bathroom with Megan, I famously created for myself a long-running quote by saying, “It’s not great, but it’s done.” Servant heart I do not naturally have.)
The professionally-dressed woman is introduced as the mayor. She thanks us for our service to this little city. She presents each of us with a key to the city. A tiny key-shaped pin poked through a square of foam sitting inside a little plastic box. We feel humbled, and I regret not being more careful with my paint job.
We laugh a lot about it later. It’s funny symbolism to give a group of teenagers from Iowa keys-that-are-not-keys to your Louisiana city. And then we just get really contemplative and feel really touched. We did something very small — mostly for our enjoyment and very little for God’s glory — and we are honored in such a significant way. I wore that pin on my favorite fair trade pursue until it fell off.