Back in January, in a sermon, I referenced a story Mike Yaconelli told in his book Dangerous Wonder. In this book, he told this story.
Our town is small by California standards – one traffic light and six thousand residents. One Sunday morning I was preaching about the unconditional love of God, a love that was outside the lines and resulted in the church loving outside the lines. Our church is different from most; the congregation feels free to interrupt me during my sermons. Just as I was finishing, a sixteen year old girl said, “This is a good sermon, Pastor, but I was thinking that if we are supposed to love outside the lines, then I know how we can do it. In three weeks the Siskiyou County Fair is coming, and with the fair come the ‘carnies.’” (The “carnies are itinerant workers who operate the rides of the traveling carnival. Every year the carnies are the talk of our rural town. Most of them are tough-looking and scary with lots of tattoos, huge muscles, and hard-looking faces. People always make derogatory comments about them.)
The high school girl continued, “I was thinking that instead of making fun of the carnies, maybe we should have a dinner and welcome them to town.”
The church agreed, and this young girl organized the entire event. She called the manager of the fair for permission, called the owner of the carnival to see if they would want a dinner. The carnival owner suggested a lunch just before the fair opened. “Okay,” said the girl, “We will barbeque hamburgers and cheeseburgers and have salads, desserts, and soft drinks. All you can eat. How many can we expect?” After some thought, the owner said to expect fifty.
The day of the lunch about twenty people from the church showed up to help serve. There was enough food for seventy. At twelve-thirty when the lunch was to begin, only four carnies showed up. By one-thirty, however we hadn’t served 50 carnies, or 75 carnies, or even 150 carnies. We had served 200 carnies. When it looked like we would run out of food, the young girl came running up to me, the pastor , and said, “We’re running out of food. GET SOME!” We did.
When the lunch was over, numerous carnies came up to the young girl and thanked her. One older lady who had been working carnivals for a long time said, “I have been doing carnivals for forty years, and this is the first time I’ve been welcomed to town.” The all-you-can-eat carnie lunch has been going for seven years now, all because a teenage girl was naïve enough to believe God loved a group of carnies as much as He loved her. (Mike Yaconelli: Dangerous Wonder, NavPress. 1998.)
Some members of the congregation heard this story and it stuck with them. The gears began turning, and they decided, "Hey, we have a festival here in Millersport... and they employ people to work the concessions and rides... we could have a meal for them, too!"
So today was the day when we served them... and it was fantastic! We served lasagna, bread, salad, cake, and ice cream, and it was great. I got to greet them and say a blessing - we welcomed them to town and thanked them for serving us, because we love our Sweet Corn Festival, and without the rides and concessions it just wouldn't be the same.
I found out a lot about the people who worked the rides. Several of them were from Turkey, Ukraine, and Russia - they were university students who came here to work for the summer before going back to school. The entire group wasn't your stereotypical "carnies" - they were clean, appreciative, and no more tattooed than the rest of society. And they really appreciated the welcome they got to Millersport from the church.
Best yet: everyone who served was extremely excited to serve and wants to make it an annual event.