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Christian Volunteerism as Salvation for the Soul

Volunteers often have a deep sense of compassion for the causes and people they volunteer for.
I remember when I was a 18 and traveled to New Orleans for a missions trip. There was an undercurrent of white saviorism and Americana Christian supremacy (along with a lot of sexual tension among sexually repressed conservative youths). We went down from the plush white suburbia of DuPage into the projects and abandoned heroin dens of Nawlins. None of us had first hand experience with that level of extreme poverty. At the time we equated that poverty to the devastation of Katrina and slothfulness of entire communities. Drug culture, we assumed, ravaged the economy and stability of these neighborhoods. And finally, a distance from the Lord.
We went to the Fisher Projects and set up Vacation Bible School (VBS) for young kids to learn the Word. In retrospect, it was a bit manipulative. Moreover, no one in our group had the necessary experience to provide quality education, guidance, care, or advocacy for the demographic we were “serving.”
But one situation stands out to me most. My old friend Andy and I encountered a homeless man while doing outreach with a local pastor. He was playing a djembe and told us his name was Spiderman. Spiderman is a skilled musician, as is Andy. Spiderman invited Andy to play along side him. Andy responded, “Man, I got nothing on you.” Spiderman replied, “I used to have nothing too, but now I got it all.” He laughed. It wasn’t a sarcastic remark, but it was a tad tongue in cheek. He had the shirt on his back, and the djembe in his lap. That was, as far as we could tell, it.

I remember that moment vividly. It drove me to found a homeless outreach ministry in Chicago. It was called Chicago’s Beloved Homeless, CBH. Later we shortened it to CB, as we discovered many of our friends on the street resented the term “homeless.” At this organization, I learned so much about service. In a recent conversation with my co-founder, Pat, we discussed how little we accomplished. “The only person that I helped, or saved, or changed in the 5 years of CB was myself,” he said.
I couldn’t agree more. Of course, we made some temporary meaningful relationships, often with people on the streets, and often with other volunteers.
But it was an outlet for our compassion. Yes, we were often misguided in our beliefs, and yes, we often mistepped, misspoke, and were misdirected; Yes, we were young and ignorant- But we tried hard. Every single week for five years. And it was pretty cool.

It was a crash course in poverty culture and social work. We learned direct action, non-violent conflict management, and integrated community building first hand through trial and error. And we came to conclusions that we could later would frame in the language provided by Angela Davis, bell hooks, the Panther Party, Marx, liberation theologians, and social work readings. But we learned it through experience.

Now, not all volunteers have this transformational experience. But we did. I later went to Palestine and was further shaped by my volunteer activism there. I have to say, volunteering taught me how to vent my compassion for the world. I don’t think all Christian volunteers have this experience. But I think that is because they aren’t challenged by the struggle for equality and peace, and they aren’t open to acknowledging their own short comings, failures, and ignorance. I have been asked so many times, “why not bring people from the streets back home”? This question assumes that the volunteer has the training, discipline, and understanding to appropriately, professionally, and safely serve a highly at risk population. Most volunteers do not have these skills. But they do have that compassion…

I have been told countless times that a vegan lifestyle, or radical lifestyles in general, do nothing to offset global climate change, or combat systemic inequality. And they have a point. That being said, it is important to live out our compassion for the world, and do the little things we can to raise awareness and be apart of change.

Compassion is great, but it needs direction and action. Effective volunteer management can help transform basic human compassion into a powerful political tool for change. Compassion must be shaped and sustained by theory. Just as love ebbs and flows, grows and changes in romantic relationships, so does compassion grow and shrink within the life of activism and volunteerism. That is why we must rely on theory to bring us through the trying times of volunteering and activism. We must listen to the prophetic voices of critical theorists, people who experience poverty and inequality, and those who have viable solutions to the problems we seek to cure.
It is important that our volunteer and activism work doesn’t just address the immediate needs of the situation, nor the side effects of larger problems. We need to understand how treating the symptoms and caring for the immediate needs of complex social issues play into the larger role of undoing racism, inequality, poverty, and environment destruction. And that is why compassion without theory is as useless as theory without action.

Volunteerism can be a wasted time of feel good masturbatory action. But it can be some of the most transformative and meaningful moments of a person’s life. It is what builds relationships and promotes positive & sustainable cross cultural communities.

I stand in defense of volunteers who are ignorant activists with big hearts and little direction. To all my volunteering peers and friends, open your eyes and hearts to theorists and ideas that can shape your compassion into meaningful action that transforms your efforts into tangible salvation for your souls and the building blocks for restorative justice and authentic community.