It was a mid-March Kentucky day. Mother Nature had been teetering with uncertainty (the chill of winter or the thaw of spring?), but today she was in the mood for spring. The sun warmed the earth and the trees began to think of changing from brown to green. And us?
We were doing what everyone does when winter melts away and spring comes skipping in – forsaking the indoors for the out. Hiking leisurely past Cumberland Falls and down along the river, stopping to sit on a huge boulder and watch the water here, wandering off to investigate a little cave there. There were several of us, volunteers from different roots, mixing here, splitting there, talking, laughing, enjoying a companionable silence.
As the hike came to a close, I found myself betwixt Sam; thin-limbed and eyes wide in expectation (because life is a funny, wonder-filled thing and who wants to miss any of it?), and Janean; smile wide and heart filled to the brim (with McCreary County, with thoughts of beautiful souls already met and beautiful souls still to meet, with an appreciation for this moment, here. Right now.).
We walked three abreast down the path toward the falls, trees shading our steps and spring joy settling into our bones. Sam suddenly turned and waved to someone down the hill.
Janean peered down the slope. “Is that one of our people?”
Sam turned, eyes smiling behind his glasses. “No. Just a stranger. But not so much anymore.”
Janean and I grinned, because we both know how wonderful it can be when a stranger loses a little bit of their stranger-ness. We’d seen how it works many a time. And many of those times were right here, on Kentucky soil, working with the Christian Appalachian Project. That’s what we were all here for really – to help out repairing homes for Workfest. The very next day found us out of the forest and sitting in rows of chairs at Camp AJ, watching college kids get oriented to their surroundings. They had rolled in from several different colleges in several different states. They didn’t know each other, but soon that would change.
Soon they would all be standing awkwardly in a circle in front of a house tucked in between Kentucky hills. They would be handed safety glasses and hammers and shovels and drills. They would exchange stories between pounding nails into siding and digging trenches for underpinning. They would eat lunch on the floor in a circle, while the homeowner’s grandchildren bounced around the outskirts, looking for someone to throw a ball for them. They would develop skills with saws and formulate inside jokes. They would gather together in prayer. They would take advice from Jay, the 80-year-old crew leader with a gruff voice and a compassionate heart who’s been volunteering at Workfest for years. They would learn about service, about community, about living, about love.
And then, at the end of the week, they would say good-bye. They would say good-bye to Sarah, the nursing student from Chicago…to Joe, the pysch major from New York…to Elizabeth, the farm girl from Michigan…to Jay, the retired military man from Georgia…to Michael, the campus minister from Indiana…to Viv, the future pediatrician from Nebraska. They would hug all of these, their crew members, and exchange last minute laughs before waving good-bye and climbing into their college vans. They would head home with a bittersweet taste in their mouths, knowing it was likely that they would never see the people they worked with this week again.
Because, after all, they are just strangers.
…not so much anymore.