Community Service as a Core Component of Christian Life (Pt 2)
My friend Mary suggested one day, gently but persuasively, that I ought to join her some time when she went downtown to serve lunch to the homeless. I’ve participated in similar activities over the years. Standing behind a lunch counter with a large ladle. Slopping creamed corn or mashed potatoes onto a plastic plate. Rarely making eye contact with the recipients of my food offering. Only briefly venturing out from behind my protective lunch counter. A scene more reminiscent of the 4077th M*A*S*H mess tent than other settings for ministry I’ve experienced. I said yes, but made my way downtown with very modest expectations.
Those expectations soon gave way to a much richer experience than I had anticipated. We began together in a ministry center where full-time volunteers and staff shared with us a unique vision for ministry. We witnessed the passion they have for the community of people who call the streets of Denver their home, and the difference they hope to make. They brought us downtown, handed out assignments and helped us to greet and feed a couple hundred people who came by.
After cleaning up, we were informed that we wouldn’t be heading back for another 45 minutes or so, and we were encouraged to make a friend or two before we left. I made small talk with a few people who didn’t seem especially interested, finally having a chance to sit down with a young man who went by the name of “Merlin.” We talked for a half hour or so, and he shared with me what it was like for him to grow up in an unloving family, to struggle for a sense of identity and finally to strike out on his own, even though he had no secure way to make a living. He hopped trains and moved from city to city, finally ending up in downtown Denver. Merlin shared a few stories about how challenging life on the streets can be, but he seemed to relish the freedom he had, and was settling into this life, at least for a time.
These kinds of connections stand at the heart of why Christians become involved in community service. Meeting physical needs — a meal, a pair of shoes, a warm jacket — can be very important, but even more vital is time spent face-to-face, looking one another in the eye, saying with actions more than with words that we care; that we see them as a child of God; someone with value and dignity. These are the gifts that are much more likely to break down barriers between people, and bring a certain joy to everyone involved.
At Saint Peter there are many opportunities to experience this: Covenant Cupboard Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Community Services (“Pack-to-School” and “Adopt-a-Family”), Sharing Our Suppers, donating blood at Bonfils, a visit to Christ in the City… each of these are opportunities to reach out and get to know our neighbors, affirming and encouraging them, and learning a bit more about them. It is less about rescuing them from their difficulties, and more about helping them see that they are not alone. And as we welcome them into our hearts and our lives, we welcome none other than Jesus himself. (Mtt. 25:31-46)
This week we welcome back our high school group and their sponsors from Anapra, Mexico. We will hear stories about what they experienced, the people they met and the work they accomplished. Even more so, we will hear how their vision for Christian ministry has expanded: the joy they experienced as cultural barriers crumbled, friendships formed and the presence of Christ became central. It is with deep hope that this experience has shaped them powerfully, and that their witness will inspire all of us to reach out in similar ways.
May we all know the joy that comes from serving Christ by serving our neighbors in need! This, indeed, is the life Christ invites us to live.
This article is part two in a three-part series of articles from Pastor Dave Risendal and Faith Formation Leader Jeanne Maloney on community service as a core component of Christian life. These articles are intended to coincide with our High School Youth Group’s service trip to Anapra, Mexico (June 23-29).