What usually happens when I take students on mission trips or retreats is that I often learn just as much as they do.

New Orleans was no exception. As much as the students were stretched and challenged to grow, the adults in our group were as well. It’s interesting when this happens, I find, because my human reaction to stretching is often resistance…but because I’m asking the students to not resist the challenge, I am further challenged to set an example not only through my actions, but through my response.

So when I’m asked to do something that’s hard for me, I just have to do it–with a smile and a “hey, kids! Your turn next!” encouragement.

Last week, my team of 11 served in five different places. Three of them were challenging, but not unexpected (a children’s day camp, a food bank and the downtown school where we scraped paint and painted doors). Two of them were a bit tougher.

On Monday morning, right out of the gate, we went to Bridgehouse. Bridgehouse is a service for recovering addicts. There are a few different areas that the men and women in the program serve, and the one we went to was tied to the Bridgehouse Thrift Store. It was a warehouse that receives all of the donations for the store. Items have to be sorted and examined before they are sent to the shop. “It’s not a Christian ministry,” our site coordinator told us. “You’re welcome to talk about Jesus, but it might not be warmly received.”

One of the pieces of advice I gave our students upon embarking on the entire New Orleans journey–when we found out that we would be focusing more on relationships and service organizations than on paint and plaster–was that they should always put the people they are serving first. Eye contact and smiles show respect; questions and conversation create relationship. So many people in need (for whatever reason and in whatever circumstance) are used to being ignored or passed by or treated like less than human. Consider reactions to a homeless person asking for change on the street–how many people walk by without even acknowledging the question? Eye contact and an “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” show respect for another human. In our youth group, we talked about the importance of treating each person encountered like a person that Jesus loves just as much as Jesus loves each of us in the group.

So when I found myself assigned to sorting and stacking clothes hangers face to face with a woman, a little older than me but quite weathered by what was a harder life than I have lived, I smiled and greeted her warmly and introduced myself.

“Where are you from?” she wondered.

“Kentucky,” I replied.

“Why are you here?” She asked.

“I’m working here today. These kids”–I gestured around the area where students had been assigned various jobs within my view–“they’re with me. We’re here in New Orleans for the week.”

“They just came here to work?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

Of course, residents of New Orleans are more used to groups coming in to serve since Katrina.

She and I shared conversation for a moment–she told me that she was from St. Louis and had only recently come to New Orleans. She told me the things she loved about New Orleans. The only thing she didn’t tell me? Her name. I asked, but she ducked the question and I didn’t push it.

I stepped away to deal with an issue with one our students (she was sick from the heat) and when I returned, my new friend was gone. She reappeared later at lunch and I watched some of our students converse with her over their sandwiches. I also watched in amusement as one of the guys offered one of our high school students a cigarette (she declined) and two of the employees nearly got into a fistfight.

I counted our time there as a successful first morning of work in New Orleans.

On Tuesday morning, we went to Ormund House. Ormund House is a nursing home and many of the residents are Alzheimer’s patients. I was really proud of our students when they realized that basically the expectation was that they would, one by one, take a resident in a wheelchair from the hallway and head to the cafeteria. They stepped right up, one after the other, each receiving a new friend that they all carefully wheeled across the building. It was a lot to ask of high school students, who likely have had limited exposure at this point to elderly adults in wheelchairs.

Once in the cafeteria, the students spread out to visit with the residents. It was tough at first, and at one point, while I was in the middle of a conversation with a resident coloring a picture of flowers, I turned and there were 7 of our girls standing behind me. A little big group conversation with my new friend and then I encouraged them to spread out and find their own conversation partners.

A little later, as I was wandering around the room, I stopped at a table and greeted a resident named Lucille. There were no chairs around her table, so I rested my hands on the table and leaned in toward her. She grabbed my left hand with her right hand tightly. I squeezed back, gently, and told her my name and babbled about who knows what for a moment, while Lucille kept tight hold of my hand. She began to talk–just talk–and I nodded and listened and tried to understand her words. Her grip on my hand continued. I knelt on the floor next to the table. After about ten minutes, my knees were hurting, but Lucille continued to hold my hand. I caught one of our student’s attention and she brought me a chair. For another ten minutes, I sat with Lucille while she gripped my hand, stroking it with her thumb. I just sat with her. I didn’t know what to say and I wasn’t entirely sure I was doing the right thing, but I was there.

“Ministry of presence,” my minister friend Ann Marie would say. Sometimes you just sit with a person and that’s all they need.

Eventually, Lucille released my hand and started flipping through the People Magazine on her table. She told me about living in New Orleans all her life. She told me about her wedding. She told me about a baby that had died. She told me about her parents and her husband. She sometimes seemed to know I was there and sometimes she seemed to forget. But I sat with her the rest of the morning, watching her flip through the same magazine four times.

The 27 students and 5 adults from Kentucky went in all different directions that week, serving in various places. One thing we could agree on–the people we were serving were all important. The work we were doing was difficult or awkward or hot or demanding, but the people we were serving alongside made it necessary. Each person has a story, each story is significant.

And the one thing I know for sure–we didn’t just serve people in New Orleans. We were served by people in New Orleans. Our students (and adults) could reflect each night not just about the work they did and the people they helped. We could all find places where God was working in our hearts and lives. For me, it came in listening to my friend from St. Louis’  story and from (hopefully) comforting Lucille and offering her companionship.

The funny thing? I was hoping in my interactions with each woman, that she would know that she mattered–that her life mattered. I do hope that happened, but honestly? They both made me feel like I mattered because they gave me their time and their stories.