On Volunteers

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"I hate it when volunteers come into the neighborhood," Gerald declared as a van load of smiling suburbanites drove slowly past his house. "They think we can't do anything for ourselves, like we're dumb or something." It was a curious reaction for a man who had benefitted so much from volunteers. The home that he owned had been built by volunteers. And the ball court on which his children played had been donated and erected by volunteers. "The way they come across, they think no one in the 'hood' is a Christian," he continued to vent. This was a fascinating perception, I thought, for one whose children's faith had been nurtured in some great summer camps run by volunteers. Had Gerald forgotten the graciousness of his suburban brothers and sisters who sacrificed their Saturdays and vacations to serve without pay in his inner-city neighborhood? Did he not value the investments of money, material and talent that they had freely given to assist him and his neighbors?

It is difficult to be a recipient of charity, he confessed, no matter how much you may need it. It is even more difficult if you are a leader in your community. Yet on occasion it may be necessary to swallow one's pride for the sake of family and neighbors. Loss of pride may sometimes be an acceptable price to pay to accomplish a greater good. Humility can even be worn as a virtue if one is prepared emotionally and spiritually to bear it.

As I listened, it became clear that the real issue troubling Gerald was depreciation. Humility can very easily turn into humiliation when caring strangers devalue you with their kindness. Receiving visitors who have come to help is not as simple as extending a friendly handshake and setting about to accomplish a task together. One must brace himself for innocent insults from people who truly do want to help: the complements that camouflage surprise at seeing how clean and orderly one's home is or how well behaved one's children are; the naive misconceptions that faith, if found in the inner-city, will likely be misguided; the unconscious condescension of those who assume themselves to be of higher intelligence. To maintain one's self-esteem in the face of such benevolence requires goodly portions of grace and inner strength.

One can prepare himself to receive such kindness but it requires intentional effort. He must remind himself that his faith is not at all inferior for he sees God answer his daily prayers in miraculous ways. And he must mentally rehearse again and again that income is neither the measure of a man's worth nor intelligence. This is exhausting emotional preparation that can easily slip into defensiveness or resentment. It is quite demanding spiritual work, as well. It is no small challenge to maintain a healthy level of humility without sacrificing self-esteem. But if one is strong in mind and spirit, one can be prepared to welcome volunteers into the community with grace and dignity.

"I just get tired, I guess," Gerald admitted. It was emotional fatigue, not lack of appreciation, that had prompted his earlier outburst. As a matter of fact, he often experienced joy in meeting members of his extended faith family who offered genuine friendship as well as their resources. It was especially enjoyable when he had opportunity to offer them insights into urban life about which these suburban friends had not a clue. He found it energizing to unsettle their thinking and touch their spirits with amazing stories of how God demonstrates dramatic love for those society has discarded. There was something life-giving about this sort of exchange.

Gerald had nailed it! Reciprocity is invigorating but one-way receiving is depleting. When there is opportunity for exchange - ministry for ministry, value for authentic value - volunteer involvement can be an exhilarating rather than exhausting experience. In the best of human relationships, it is no fun being the one in need. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, "Nothing atones for the insult of a gift but the love of the giver." What makes receiving a bit more tolerable is the potential for repaying a kindness with another kindness. Genuine friendship may ease somewhat the discomfort of charity but reciprocity establishes parity. And parity is always the higher form of charity.

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