By Emilie Shimkus

After college, I took my English degree and moved back home with my parents while applying for any and every job in the publishing industry. “Service” was not foremost in my mind, I have to admit. I was too old for youth group, and too busy waiting tables, serving coffee, and answering phones to join the monthly service projects. In short, I was busy doing a whole lot of nothing-I-really-wanted-to-be-doing. I was waiting for something important and I thought that would be a real, grown-up job.

Instead, the something important turned out to be a tropical storm.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, my church at the time—Messiah Lutheran in Auburn, WA—joined with several churches in our region to build a combined mission team. We became part of thousands of volunteers working to clear the wreckage and support the people of New Orleans and the surrounding communities.

Mission Team volunteers and with staff at the Samaritan Center in Mandeville, Louisiana. I'm on the far left, standing.

I have a lot of stories and vivid memories about the mission itself—the work we did, the people we met and spoke with, and the incredible communion of meaningful work with friends and strangers.

A flooded wedding album and other precious keepsakes at a home we helped to re-roof.

I have pages of journal entries about the things I saw and learned about grief, composure, faith, and resilience. But here I want to focus on WHY I went. The moment the pastor announced the trip in worship one Sunday, I simply knew I had to go. I was called.

There were a lot of reasons not to go to Louisiana. It was incredibly inconvenient, for one; I had to get to the health department for shots, buy steel toed-boots for working in the debris, and ready myself for a week of sleeping on floors.

Sanding down the damaged, flooded, and certified "toxic" floors after we gutted the building. It's not a fuzzy picture. That's concrete and plaster dust.

Even worse, I was making ends meet at an internship and three different jobs with less-than-forgiving bosses. Requesting that much time off on short notice could get me fired.

But for all that, I had to go. I knew it was something I could do. I barely had a savings account, much less the ability to write a check for the volunteers on the ground. I couldn’t send money, but I could send myself. I could be hands and feet.

When it comes to supporting the things you believe in, my parents taught my sister and me that time is a precious and valuable commodity. Rather than bemoan the lack of gifts under the tree one tight Christmas, our family volunteered to sponsor immigrant families who didn’t even have trees. We regularly visited a dozen or more elderly “aunts and grandmas,” spending a couple of hours a couple of Saturdays every month in rest homes and teeny apartments, each one filled to the brim with lifetimes of memorabilia and stories.

Whether you can afford to write the check, and especially when you can’t, I believe it’s crucial to acknowledge the value of personal service. It’s too easy to dismiss the things you feel powerless to change.

Cars blown off the roads in the hurricane.
The steps were fully intact. The brick house they once led to on the banks of the Pontchartrain was gone.

For me, going to New Orleans was the first time I felt “powerful” in service; and by powerful, I mean strong and capable and empowered by God in the circumstance. That feeling was magnified one day of the trip when I interviewed the Pastor of one of the churches we were working with. I asked him “Why is it important that we send people instead of fatter checks,” when those check might do so much more. He answered: “To us, you are Christ.”

Distributing groceries to the emergency food banks in Gulfport.

God called me to believe and have faith in my own inherent value as a willing body. In service, He called me to bring that faith to others, to give them my strength when their own was failing.

I can do that.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church By the Narrows (ELCA)

6730 N 17th St, Tacoma, WA 98406
(253) 752-4966

Directions to St Mark’s

Office Hours:
Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.–Noon, 1:00–4:00 p.m.
Sunday 9:30-11:00 a.m.