First Place Essay

"Let Your Light Shine"

by Margaret Lucas

“Every day, light your small candle…” -Marian Wright Edelman from Guide my Feet

In 2009, I traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans for the ELCA National Youth Gathering.  Some 30,000 Lutheran youth and advisors donned orange t-shirts and fanned out across the city to serve.  Our group was assigned the task of clearing roadsides and medians.  We spent the day picking up trash and removing cat claw, an invasive and difficult weed.  It was the kind of work most of us took for granted because it was something we would do at home.  I remember being shocked at the number of people who stopped, rolled down their car windows, and said thank you.  Regular yard work that seemed so insignificant to us made a big difference to them.  We all had something to contribute and in turn were transformed by the experience; we gave our labor and the people of New Orleans showed us amazing hospitality.  For me this reciprocal effect is the most transformational of community service. The more I give and serve, the more I find my life enriched by sharing with others.

Community service is part of my life, something ordinary rather than extraordinary, part of life’s journey rather than a goal, destination or high school graduation requirement.  As long as I can remember service to others was modeled and encouraged by my family and teachers.  To say how I have been transformed in past tense paints an incomplete picture because I am still learning and growing, both being shaped by the process of service and shaping the process by which I serve.  This much I can say with certainty: we all have something to give, and a life of service expands one’s world exponentially and unexpectedly.

It is easy to feel too small to make a difference as only one of more than seven billion people on this planet.  Even the smallest candle is capable of giving light, and when myriad tiny candles burn together a room, a life or a cause can turn into a conflagration of hope and change. The simplest action can initiate a ripple effect that spreads around the world.  What I can never hope to do alone may be possible with the shared efforts of others.  Whether it is filling sandbags to prevent flooding, walking in the Relay for Life, or helping a shy child discover her voice through a summer acting camp, each day brings another opportunity to serve, share, learn and grow.

Our culture sends strong messages to seek one’s own self-interest first, to amass as much as one can, and to consume without regard for one’s neighbor.   In contrast, community service encourages me to actively listen and learn from others, to walk alongside my neighbor, and to build new relationships.  The transformative effect of service continues to mold and shape my life, giving me reason to light my small candle every day in hope of a better world.

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