Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Week in New York

I spent last week in New York City. I began my trip on Sunday afternoon with nine other wonderful people associated or loosely associated with Marsh Chapel. Some of us were meeting each other for the first time, many of us were already friends, but all of us were excited to begin a week of volunteering in homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

One of the great things about Boston University is the variety and popularity of its Alternative Spring Break trips. This year I heard multiple people complain that within five minutes of opening online registration, all the slots had been filled. The registration process itself speaks to the enthusiasm of Boston University students have for giving back through volunteering. Why would a group of college students be so eager to spend their week sleeping in uncomfortable locations, driving or flying long hours, and doing manual labor? My answer to that is, apart from being morally upstanding and socially beneficial, volunteering makes you feel amazing about yourself. Fortunately, as long as it is the right kind of volunteering, the result is mutually beneficial.

Almost all of the service trips I've participated in have left me with that good-feeling glow afterwards; several of them have been major turning points in my life. All of them have been personally rewarding. This trip to New York was different. I arrived eager to spend time helping others and to learn about the immense problem of homelessness in New York. I know I achieved the latter goal, and I hope I achieved the former, but the process was far from pleasant.

While we were in New York we worked with Youth Services Opportunities Project, YSOP for short, an organization that facilitates groups of volunteers and places them with shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries and other outreach locations throughout the New York area. We were sent to a different site each day and worked in four very different locations with very different ideas as to how to best serve the homeless community.

Three out of the four sites we volunteered in left me feeling useless, frustrated, and sad. I was either ignored by the rest of the staff, bullied by them, or treated as a liability. I witnessed homeless people being treated as if they were problems to be dealt with instead of people, and small children ignored by their caregivers. At the end of my four days at YSOP, I felt no glow of a job well done. In fact, I just felt uncomfortable and a little depressed.

I want to be a missionary because of my previous volunteer experiences. I still want to be a missionary because of the week I spent in New York. Last week I learned a very important lesson about service-it's not about me. It's not about how good I feel about myself afterwards, it's not about me being comfortable or feeling like I've been useful; it's about the people I'm there to serve. Sometimes my satisfaction goes hand in hand with the benefit of those I'm serving, most of the time it won't. Last week I realized that I'm more than willing and able to be uncomfortable five, six, or even seven days out of the week if that means that I'm helping someone.

This week I'm a little sore, a little tired, a little sleep-deprived, but, in the end, glad to have my calling reaffirmed by a negative experience.

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