On being a lifelong volunteer

It was on a very average evening worship service at the end of the year last year that I must have realized for the first time that all these people I knew so well were doing what we do best, just being together in the adoration of Christ. We were back at the Source together. I had been there with them for well over a decade at countless such services. We were a family and in the end it wasn’t about all the work we’d done that looked good under letterhead for potential donors. It was about adoring Christ together in small and big ways, in ways that can’t be quantified but only lived. And as I think of these hundreds of faces I call my family in Christ I realize we have something that the miles that will distance us in coming days can’t take away. We have a Lord who loves us. Our adoration for Christ extends beyond the time and space we share or don’t share. He is working in us all his perfect Will which we know in part.

I was an election judge here in the city of Chicago during the last election. During one of our long moments without any activity one of my fellow judges, an attractive young black woman who I’d call full of inspiration and charisma asked the other four of us an excellent question. “If money was no object what would you be doing with your life?” She began with herself. She said that her hearts desire was to give children the opportunity to see beyond their current situations and achieve their fullest potential. She was given that opportunity in life and she wanted to pass that on.

The next woman (who later traveled with me that night to the receiving station to return the unused ballots, election results, and so on) said that she would love to teach children with special needs full time. She was working two jobs just to make ends meet. She had to rise extra early every day and drive her daughter out to the suburbs for work and then pick her back up in the evening and bring her home. As I got to know this woman better I realized anew that the bigger dreams in life aren’t just for wealthy people. Regardless of one’s situation you can give of yourself.

I intentionally saved my turn to share for the last. I was so inspired by what I was hearing from others that I really didn’t want to stop the spirit in the room. I explained that for me (and this was true for my fellow judge Chris Ramsey who had just shared previous) money really wasn’t an object. I found life a great blessing where I’ve lived. Chris and I weren’t rich of course, but we were living full time at this Christian community called Jesus People USA here in Uptown. The other judges asked us to explain a little more about what this was like. Chris worked at Cornerstone Community Outreach, which has many homeless shelters and outreach services. I worked for Lakefront Supply, a roofing business that used all it’s net income (after expenses) to support JPUSA. I also mentioned that I had grown up in a small Christian community in St. Louis before moving with my wife to Chicago in 1996. For us our dreams involved simply living for Jesus faithfully, trusting Him to meet our needs and reaching out to others, believing Jesus had enough for them too.

I think everyone wants to know that they have a purpose in life. They realize that on some level life has meaning to just about the extent that they have known love and can love in return. This does not come without a struggle however. As people, we’re a mixture of motives and agendas, many of which we only come to see in time. We want to be loved completely, but are only able to open up parts of ourselves. We strive for complete fulfillment, but always feel like something is missing. Here in America many people give their time as volunteers as part of that search for significance.

We volunteer our time without payment for a lot of different reasons: to promote a greater good, to improve human quality of life, or maybe to improve skills, meet other people, look for employment contacts, or just to have fun.

As I mentioned, I’ve had the privilege of belonging to two churches that have used outside volunteers in their activities for close to forty years. These volunteers have provided a wide range of services, from preparing and serving meals to providing medical attention and counseling. Both of these churches also use communal living and intensive discipleship training as a way of allowing volunteers to commit themselves for longer terms.

If you were to stand in the main lobbies of these two church organizations as I have done over the years at different times, and just observe the people coming and going, talking and interacting, you might be perplexed. They represent all ages and races, all kinds of personalities, and backgrounds. Some are tall and some short. Some have walkers and move slow and some are young and scamper quickly, always in a hurry. Some sit and look bored and some are moving too fast trying to do too much at the same time. Both of these churches use their facilities for multiple purposes.

At New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown St. Louis the lobby will be used to give away food, and then it will be swept and mopped and chairs will be set up and the lobby will have women and maybe children who will go through intake and then be taken to rooms on the third floor where they can sit and talk or watch TV or read until bedtime. Then, shortly thereafter the lobby will be full of single men. They may listen to a short sermon, or some music, they may watch TV and talk, and then they too will go up to the fifth floor to sleep. On a different day the lobby will be full of fourteen to sixteen year old white kids from a church in the suburbs. They are there to volunteer for the day and hear about what NLEC is doing.

Later that same day a young man will be sitting in the lobby waiting to see Rev. Ray because he knows he needs a place to get sober from alcohol. He walks with a limp and he needs a cane to get around. His face is red and weathered from the sun. You may see him practice a golf swing with his cane and then laugh and talk to someone you can’t see.

In Uptown Chicago, walking distance from Lake Michigan, you can sit on a bench in the lobby of Jesus People USA and witness people going and coming for various reasons. It’s obvious there is a renovation going on. The carpet has seen a lot of use. There’s a large stain just in front of the door. A large crucified Christ hangs over you, painted on old US Mail bags. This image is left over from an in-house festival the church put on over Passion week in the spring. Three young women are huddled around the front desk chatting and others walk up with questions and short little interruptions. The top three floors of this building provide housing for seniors and people with disabilities. The management of this small business is provided by members of the church. They cook, clean, do laundry, case management, and even church service on Sunday. But it’s very apparent that the seniors are at home in this multi-use facility and take advantage of the whole life of the community.

The second through seventh floors of JPUSA have living spaces for families and singles. Each floor has a kitchen for individual use. Community happens floor by floor, room by room, person to person. People join and stay for varying lengths of time. The number ranges from 450-500 people. There’s a central laundry room in the basement. So much is going on at a given period of time that individuals work to keep track of one another, with their immediate families being their primary connection.

Both of these churches began the same year, 1972, during the Jesus People Movement. Being born in 1974 and growing up at New Life Evangelistic Center, I took a keen interest in the vibrant life and constant activity I witnessed on a daily basis. The community shared a common purse and at the time members took a vow of poverty, raising support through our ministry in churches and various mailings. I felt connected to a large family of believers who were willing to sacrifice whatever was needed to do the will of God. Growing up, I bore witness from afar the work that JPUSA was doing in Chicago. The two communities swapped publications, NLEC sending The Zoa Free paper up to Chicago and JPUSA sending Cornerstone Magazines down to St. Louis. Some members knew of the other’s work and on a few occasions managed to visit.

I visited JPUSA for the first time at age 16. My mom dropped me off for the weekend while she visited family in the suburbs. In 1991 JPUSA was still moving into the hotel it has now fully renovated. I documented my first visit on video and I still have it to this day. I took the wild excitement I witnessed that weekend home with me. I mopped floors at the homeless shelter. I worshiped with them on Sunday morning. And I hung out in the rooms where people enjoyed the New Year together. Best of all was the story telling in the dining room. Here were people who could laugh at themselves and use memories of even difficult moments (like accidently stealing a car or doing a job very wrong) to laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

I came home that weekend with a new energy and a new excitement for ministry at NLEC. Five years later I was at a very different place in my life. I had married and we’d just learned my wife was pregnant. We needed support and accountability, and so my wife Martha and I moved from where we were serving at NLEC in Missouri up to Chicago. Fourteen years later, Martha and I have three children and we are answering a call from God to move back to NLEC in St. Louis. The community there is providing a house where we can live and is ordaining me as one of its pastors.

As a lifelong Christian volunteer I’ve learned a few things about giving and receiving in the art form that is Doing Mercy. I observe that jobs come and go, but the actions of love, when done for Jesus, remain. Living out of a calling to ministry, which involves giving from a replenished source, is the only way I can stay sane, sober, and involved. I’ve seen volunteers come and go. I’ve made many wonderful friends over the years. But the most enduring relationships, that I know will remain even as I move locations, are those with friends who identify with Jesus rather than the job.

What’s the difference? I know from experience that when I take on a task, I put my whole self into it. And that’s biblical right; being fully committed? Well, I’ve learned that I can easily put the task before my people, before my family, before coworkers, and yes, before God himself. When in the end I want to see that project finished more than I want to eat, more than I want to hold my kids, and quite frankly more than I want to pray, the job has become an extension of my ego rather than a service to God. The kicker is that the kind of tasks I’m talking about are the ones I’m most passionate about. Where I feel like my gifts can really shine. Where people can really know what I’m about. Something I can really take pride in.

This is where volunteering gets difficult. How much time can a person put into a task before they want it for themselves alone? How many hours of labor will finally make me want to take over and leave you out? This is the conundrum that I believe points back to the question: “Why am I doing this?” and really “Who am I doing this for?” There is nothing so unsatisfactory in the end as a task done “for Jesus” that is actually in reality for me. Far fewer people want to clean toilets for Jesus than write books. Far fewer people want to mop floors and change diapers for Jesus than host seminars and share the great wisdom Jesus taught them personally.

So what I’ve learned in community the hard way is that in order for voluntary action to be truly meaningful, I have to identify myself with Christ rather than the particular task. How do I do this? In an attitude of surrender. When I wake in the mornings I have to clear my head of all the ambition, the hope, the fear, the half-awake frenzy for whatever and just lay it down. It was on a very average evening worship service at the end of the year last year that I must have realized for the first time that all these people I knew so well were doing what we do best, just being together in the adoration of Christ. We were back at the Source together. I had been there with them for well over a decade at countless such services. We were a family and in the end it wasn’t about all the work we’d done that looked good under letterhead for potential donors. It was about adoring Christ together in small and big ways, in ways that can’t be quantified but only lived. And as I think of these hundreds of faces I call my family in Christ I realize we have something that the miles that will distance us in coming days can take away. We have a Lord who loves us. Our adoration for Christ extends beyond the time and space we share or don’t share. He is working in us all his perfect Will which we know in part.

Now I’d like to come back to the original question my election judge friend asked, “If money was no object what would you be doing with your life?” Her question points back to the fact that for most of us money is the object impeding what we really want to do with our lives. And I would add, not just the money itself but what it represents to the people who care about us, like our families. She couldn’t just empty her bank account and spend the money doing what she most wanted to just because it was her hearts desire. What would her family think? And the other woman I mentioned had so many legitimate bills and needs in her life, she couldn’t get the job she really wanted because it didn’t pay what she needed. And this is the reality that most people of good will face.

In the case of the two churches I’ve been with, the founders really didn’t have much to lose. My parents married and went into ministry around the same time without much thought as to how they’d get money to live and do ministry. They only knew that they had to have faith that God would provide. At JPUSA the founders were literally surviving by faith in those early days. They prayed every day and God provided food and money seemingly out of nowhere. It appears fool-hardy by today’s economic measurements, as it was then. The principle regarding voluntary service and money was simply that the worker is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7), freely you receive freely give (Matt. 10:8). Be faithful with what God provides and God will provide again (Matt. 25:23). Now this kind of hand to mouth existence doesn’t leave much laid up for the future. It leaves the onus back on God to somehow provide. And you know what? I consider myself a living testament to the fact that somehow God always has.

In this way, life becomes an adventure of faith. The ordinary gets transformed right where the need is. As long as the eyes of faith see that ordinary sack of potatoes as God’s provision, God keeps providing. It’s only where the work becomes drudgery, the mouths become the same warm bodies in line, the feet the same dirty shoes to be mopped after, that our vision is lost and we fear how on earth we’ll make it to tomorrow.

I have learned that recovering alcoholics and addicts make some of the most faithful and spiritual people you’ll ever meet, simply because they found they had nothing else to lose and everything to gain from a loving God. In the book Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions and in discussing the Twelfth Step which involves this spiritual awakening and carrying the message, they zero in on the fear of financial insecurity I believe is common to most wage earners in our debt absorbed society. They noted that they’d been spendthrifts when it came to pleasing themselves and impressing others. They’d acted like the money had no end, but then acted miserly between sprees, unknowingly saving up for the next binge. Money was about pleasure and self-importance. As the addiction progressed it became the means for the next drink and “the temporary comfort of oblivion”.

Upon getting sober and working in recovery they found that when a job was only a way of getting money and having independence, they were the victims of unreasonable fear! But they became free when they saw it as an opportunity for service. “In time we could lose the fear regardless of our material prospects. We would cheerfully provide humble labor without worrying about tomorrow.” They learned that their spiritual condition mattered more than their material condition. Money finally became the servant and not the master. It became a means of exchanging love and service.

“When, with God’s help, we calmly accepted our lot, then we found we could live at peace with ourselves and show others who still suffered the same fears that they could get over them, too. We found that freedom from fear was more important than freedom from want.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Gift Edition, 1980, pgs. 120-122)

How can we move from money being the object that keeps us from doing what we want with our lives? Well, I think faith and trust has everything to do with it. Over the years I’ve witnessed a number of people come up to my dad and ask for prayer in the following way: “Please pray for me. I know God wants me to _______, but I just can’t do it right now because I’ve got so much going on.” He would pray for them, but I know that they just still went away miserable because it was the money thing, you know? What is the one thing Jesus said made it hard to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Riches. (Matt. 19:23-24) I can’t help believing that it is that fear of financial insecurity, that way of seeing money as the big impassable wall, that keeps Americans from really giving their all to God.

It seems so unfair doesn’t it? Money symbolizes our voluntary activities. We can say we believe any number of things, but how we eat, what we wear, what our house looks like, what our children expect, all of these relate to the way we spend our money. For some people it is obvious that the money has them. The debt has them. And it’s obvious that unless something drastic changes they know how they’ll spend the rest of their days here on earth and where they’ll be buried and how they’ll be remembered. It’s all quite predictable. But for others, it’s clear that the money doesn’t have them. They’re a more rare breed. They get tempted like everyone else, and they’ll have junk they don’t need, but when it comes down to it they’re able to give spontaneously. They’re able to share their lives with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet in moneyed circles. They use money to serve and it’s because they believe in a power greater than money.

Living in these two church communities has not been easy. I’m a pretty strong willed guy to be around and I’ve suffered all the necessary blows to my ego that come accordingly. But in looking back over my life not too long ago, I know I had a lot to lose every time I stubbornly refused to open myself up to others. Yes, in church it’s very easy to lose focus, to lose the eyes of faith and open up to resentment. My right actions have not always been for the right reasons. But as Johnny Cash sang, “I’m living the right life now.” And I’ve got so much to be grateful for. That life is apparently for many other people I’m grateful to know; and it’s there for you too if you don’t already know it.

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Filed under 12 Steps, Community, homeless, homelessness, JPUSA, love, work

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