I am in an airport in Chicago. TV screens tuned to news stations flash words about a dangerous new virus that has arrived in the U.S. and display images of people walking around in masks.
I pull some Bath & Body Works sweet-smelling hand sanitizer from my bag and rub it along my palms and between my fingers before picking up my McDonald’s hamburger. There is a feeling of uncertainty in the air. I wonder if this is the best place to be right now – a large city – an international airport.
However, I have been planning on and looking forward to this trip (my annual Christian Appalachian Project Workfest mission trip) for months – and despite the uncertainty, it feels right. So I take a bite of my hamburger, catching a whiff of hand sanitizer as my hands approach my face and I chew my mix of bread and beef and cheese.
I arrive in Kentucky for the ninth time. As the white fences and green horse-dotted pastures of Lexington fade into the twists and turns of the Appalachian hills, I feel a smile curving my lips and spreading through my body. There it is – that coming home feeling. Sand Lick Road. Skinny, curving, winding through houses until it comes to a camp on a hill. Red A-frames sitting above a man-made lake rumored to be home to a giant turtle. Camp AJ. As I drag my suitcase across the gravel towards the dorm, I take a deep breath. Faith. Peace. Calm. They are here.
I dump my suitcase in the dorm and go for a walk. The sun is shining with a warmth that you don’t find every day in March. I walk around the lake and take a little trail back to a house. A house I lived in for a year and a half when I was a long term volunteer. I sit on the porch and soak in the early spring warmth and the coming home vibes.
The next day is Sunday. I hitch a ride with another volunteer to get to church. Little ‘ol St. Paul’s. They always have a potluck after Mass. I always sit with an old guy named Tom. We never talk a whole lot, and aren’t particular friends. I’m not even a particular fan of potlucks. But when my ride says that she can’t stay for the potluck, I’m disappointed. A couple that works at the church offers to take me home. I have never met them before, but I say okay. I sit with Tom, eat cheesy potatoes and share little life updates (I got married. He’s just happy if he gets out of bed in the morning). After the potluck, the man that works at the church takes me back to the camp and drops me off at the door.
Mike O. is there. I worked with him for a year. He knows me pretty well.
“Look at Killer! Driving up to camp with a complete stranger!”
I smile – because he’s right. It is not something that I would typically do at home or anywhere – take a ride from a strange man. And all for the sake of going to a social function with a few acquaintances. No, shy, reserved, extra-cautious me doesn’t usually do things like that. But today, it felt right. And I feel wonderfully peaceful. Wonderfully comfortable. Fear cannot touch me.
Fast forward a week. The college students have arrived and have been working on repairing houses for Workfest. We are at dinner. Many of them are looking at their phones. “They’re calling off school for the rest of the year because of Covid.” Everywhere there are murmurings and talk. “This is so weird. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Two days later. A volunteer meeting. All the colleges that were going to come next week have cancelled school. All of the crew volunteers are heading home except for a small handful who can’t yet. I am one of that handful. My plane ticket is for a day a week away. I now share the dorm with just one other person, a surprisingly independent 19-year-old who happens to have the same name as me. We work together on a job site with CAP veteran Jay and long term volunteer Heather, building a porch. Jay takes to calling me “Big Liz” and my roommate “Little Liz”, despite the fact that I am not at all big and there is very little difference in our sizes. We all laugh.
Another day I work on a job site with my old Kentucky dad Clarence and his coworker. We piece together kitchen cabinets. The older woman who lives there sits back in her chair and talks to us.
“You know, I’m not going to worry about this pandemic. I know the Lord will take care of me. That’s what I told my husband before he died. He was real sick and we had a water leak that ruined our floors that we couldn’t fix because he was so sick and he told me he was terribly worried about me being alone in this world without him. But I told him, ‘Don’t you worry about me. God will take care of me.’ And He has. He sent all of you to help me with these repairs. He’s taking care of me.”
As I left Kentucky at the end of that week, as I walked through the next year, and the years since, as I watched the news, as I experienced the strange quiet of a world partially shut down, as I listened to sad stories on NPR outdoors amongst the cherry trees, as I experienced isolation with baby number one, as I saw the financial impact that reared its ugly head after the shutdown, as I experience Covid firsthand with baby number two, I can’t help but be incredibly grateful for and incredibly in awe of the way that I started the pandemic – in a place, in a feeling, of total trust and total comfort. While fear and confusion crept into the world, I experienced certainty and peace. A peace that, despite sundry anxieties, has stuck with me.
I have often wanted to be able to see the future mapped out before me – to know where I was going when and with whom. But I am gradually realizing that this is not necessary, because I can trust the map maker.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it may have seemed like I was starting in a bad position – the opposite of quarantined or isolated, in an airport in a big city, in a camp full of travelers from around the country. Excellent virus spreading opportunities.
But really, I was exactly where I needed to be. In a place that felt like home, even though it wasn’t home. In a place full of love, laughter, and concern for others. In a place where God always shows up, usually (as Greg says) somewhere around lunchtime. In a place of great peace.
A place where I could learn to sing
Here in the dark, I do not ask to see
The path ahead – one step enough for me
Lead on, lead on, kindly light.
Lead on God. Maybe I haven’t always known it, but that one step really is all I need. Always, You are there….leading me right to where I need to be.