For this week's "Do Something," I have a great guest post from Christine Hill.
Christine is a professional writer and an avid reader who’s passionate about storytelling in all its forms. At any given moment, she’s in the middle of at least three books on anything from human psychology to ninjas. Although she’s a marathon swimmer and enjoys camping in the mountains, she believes there’s nothing better than a carton of ice cream and a Dawson’s Creek marathon. You can see some of her professional writing here.
I need to talk to her about some swimming tips . . . Enjoy her wonderful writing!
Last month, my church started an initiative to spread the Christmas spirit by serving more every day. Like many others, I took up that challenge. And in the course of it, I’ve learned one important thing about service:
Isn’t that crazy? I used to think the main reason that I didn’t serve others as much as I should was limited time. Or maybe it was selfishness. Maybe just being blind to the needs of others. Nope. It’s fear. Well… probably about 90%.
So, when I started the month of service, I was tempted to weight a lot of my personal service projects towards things that I was comfortable with: reaching out to family and friends when they need help, cleaning the house for my roommates, cheering up a kid in line in front of me. Even giving blood… I’m not scared of that needle at all.
But I quickly realized that in order to be truly effective at serving this month, I’d have to reach outside of my comfort zone. So I signed up for a shift at the soup kitchen.
I know! That shouldn’t be so scary. Most people have done it at least once. And the organization is already set up. I don’t have to be in charge. But years of paranoia of walking alone on a city street has made me hesitant to reach out to those who need help the most--people who are literally on the street during the coldest part of the year, in need of the most basic things: food, shelter, health. I think so much of the fear originates from the idea that people on the fringes of society are dangerous, and other. I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes has a hard time seeing a brother or a sister in the homeless person on the corner. But I was ready for that to change.
So, I went to the soup kitchen. Alone. Here’s how it went:
The first stage was navigating the city streets on the “bad” side of town to find a parking spot that I’d feel comfortable walking to and from in the dark. After circling the block 4 times, I realized that there was gated parking right next to the building, watched over by security guards. I asked them where I could park and they directed me right in.
The next stage was going in, getting oriented and assigned a post. The place looked a lot like a school cafeteria, but a bit smaller. Helpers in the kitchen were put in charge of a sort of gumbo made of hot dogs, squash, and carrots. I’ve never been comfortable surrounded by strangers, but I decided to quickly make a friend with at least one helper there. I was lucky enough to end up right next to a friendly mother and her teenage son, who were there to fulfill the son’s required volunteer hours for school. We commiserated over the terrible hairnets and the general feeling of awkwardness. Luckily, awkwardness was quickly dispelled by the head chef, who efficiently bundled us into our positions and put us at ease with crass but jovial humor. I manned the giant thermos, dispensing hot chocolate along with three other helpers at the back of the dining room.
The doors opened at 5:30, and for the next hour, we were rapidly pouring hot chocolate, greeting diners, and tossing trash away. For the most part, I was too busy to feel awkward or out of place again. I tried to smile at everyone who met my eye, and about half of the people who approached smiled gratefully back. Honestly, all the diners were a lot more comfortable with the routine in that cafeteria than most of the volunteers.
During the course of the next hour, one person collapsed and had to be checked over by a nurse and then taken away by paramedics. One person had to be kicked out by the security that was on hand. And one person got sick, and some extra volunteers had to clean it up. Pretty much, all the things that I was kind of scared of happening… happened. And it wasn’t a big deal. There were people on hand who had experience to deal with it. And the work of getting meals to as many people as possible continued. The kitchen served about 500 meals. Towards the end of the hour and a half that the kitchen was open, things slowed down a bit. That’s around when the only kids I’d seen all night came in. Since the pace had slowed down, I was able to talk with them a bit. One child had red eyes, and looked like he’d thrown a tantrum before they came that night. The mother looked so tired. But when I teased the little girl about her piece of cake, I was able to make both her and her mother smile.
I didn’t have any life-shattering, heart-warming moments. But I noticed something really important as I was leaving. First of all, working in the soup kitchen just wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. So many things aren’t when you just go ahead and get it done. Second of all, as I drove away through streets populated with homeless people, that wasn’t as scary as it had been earlier in the night, either. Having seen most of them sitting down and eating in a cafeteria earlier, having handed them cups of hot chocolate and greeted them with a smile, it was a lot easier to see faces and people. Brothers and sisters.
During a fresh reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. We often picture the Samaritan as someone in complete control of the situation the whole time. But why do you think that those first two travelers passed the beaten-up man on the side of the road in the first place? Bandits were common on certain stretches of road. Using a beaten-up decoy as a distraction in order to easier accost and rob travelers was probably pretty common. That Samaritan could have been risking his life and health as he stopped and bent to help the unfortunate traveler. For the first time, I realized that fear keeps us from being the people that God needs us to be.
Fear should never keep us from answering a call for help. How many excuses can you think of to not give money to someone on the street? To ignore the sounds and signs of domestic abuse in the neighborhood? To not talk to the stranger who looks like he or she needs a friend?
I came away from the experience with a deeper resolve to serve outside of my comfort zone. For example, I've been learning more about addiction and how much it's fueled by isolation. And I've learned that Utah, where I live, is home to some of the worst overdose rates, but it's also hometo some cool new legislation that tries to counter it. They actually call them good samaritan laws, you can learn more about those here. I've also been learning more about domestic and dating violence, wha you can do to help prevent it, and how you can help someone in that situation by doing things like making a personalized safety plan. What's amazing is that in the process of learning more about this, I've also discovered that more of my friends struggle with these problems that I had thought, and I'm more able to help through understanding an area that used to feel really scary to me. When you step outside of your comfort zone, you find completely new opportunities to serve, and amazingly, you usually find yourself up to challenge. It doesn't take much to make a big difference and offer that connection that so many people need.
Christine, thank you so much for sharing your experience! I am sure you are not the first person to be afraid of serving outside of your comfort zone, and I feel so encouraged by what you learned from it!
What service have you done lately that scared you? How did it go?