He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. – John 15:2
All touristy stuff and camaraderie aside, this week would be different somehow. Not just because my daughters were with me, but because we were being humbled, which almost felt like being demoted at times, into a background role. This was the 6th time I drove a van full of eager students into “the city.” I expected a typical experience, as this was my fourth time working with this organization. CSM sets up a great week of service, cultural neighborhoods, and sociological learning. I was definitely pleased to be back with them after a few bad experiences with other “missions ministries.”
We are always told to come in with no definite plans or expectations, as schedules tend to change. I actually like to think that they are leaving room for God to engage you and surprise you in a meaningful way, but perhaps that sounds a little corny or unrealistic to some. In previous experiences with CSM, I have worked and assisted others at working at soup kitchens, after school programs, and shelters. We have engaged the homeless population at several parks. We have also served meals to terminal patients. This experience would be quite the opposite.
Looking back, as I told my daughters, I believe that God had us doing just the right thing, and was teaching us just the right lessons. He has a way of knowing what we need. Even if it is a bit underwhelming at times.
We served and worked at an enormous food pantry in Harlem, well before the masses came in to subsidize their increasing grocery expenses. We scrubbed, mopped, and cleaned a building owned by one of the most successful outreach churches on the lower east side of Manhattan. This church has different programming, including youth activities, education classes, and community meals. We of course cleaned for the 6 hours or so they were not using the building on this particular day. We then traveled by subway to another church so that 12 of us could sweep and mop a few large rooms.
The following day we volunteered for a Meals on Wheels program that encourages healthy eating. This served an elderly and sometimes disabled population. As it turns out, this population lives on and around Park Ave. This means they also happen to be pretty well off financially. As it turns out, some are not very nice. We honestly did not see this coming because when people think of serving, they tend to generally think of a more marginalized and vulnerable population. Later this day we went on a prayer tour and learned a bit about social problems, stratification, and gentrification.
On our final day of volunteerism, we were at a building that houses 2 congregations, an American Protestant congregation as well as a Korean one. There was a very damaged relationship between these churches which made the experience slightly awkward. We heard of their amazing youth ministries and after school program, but we would never be near it. We spent 6 hours or so cleaning, sorting what seemed like everything, organizing what seemed like everything else, stuffing Easter eggs, and painting backdrops for an upcoming Easter event. This was actually very time consuming for the 13 of us that participated.
Every church and organization we helped out with this week was very thankful and appreciative of our time. I believe there was a mutual understanding that we saved several people several hours of mundane work. Despite my shortcomings, I kind of did the math for one of our service days. 13 of us doing 6 hours of work saved someone a few weeks work. Looking back, I believe what we did might have even been more than that. We did not interact and engage with the general public, people in need, cute kids, or anything like that. What we did was free up a lot of hours for local ministry leaders and local organization employees to be able to do that. I think this was more important. It is nice to travel into an area and be acknowledged by the public with smiles, conversation, and friendship, but this leaves me wondering if we often take those moments away from locals who are working behind the scenes so that we can come in and save the day, while those who are there for the long haul, and live among those that are in need of friendship or a meal, step aside .
I am thankful for the wonderful team we had working and traveling together.Most of all I am thankful that Jesus is continuing to make known the knowledge of the Father. (John 15:15) I will look back on this as a time to reevaluate what service to others looks like, as a time of team building and friendship building among my group, and a time of helping those that are doing the real work of helping others and being a part of their lives.