On Service: A reflection after a “year of service”

I know it’s been awhile since my last post :/ This is why I don’t make any claims at being a consistent blogger. But I do hope to make some improvements at shortening my hiatuses 😉 This post is a minimally-edited reflection I wrote during our Amate House closing retreat the week of June 11th (I know, I can’t believe it’s over already!). We were encouraged to reflect on our service experience this past year and then we shared our stories with our own community.

When people ask what I’ve learned this year, I often reply, I’ve learned things with my heart that I previously knew in my head. I feel that God has been cementing truths into my heart through the experiences of this year.

Prior to Amate, I almost had an aversion to the word ‘service.’ It felt too top-down, too I-have-all-the-answers-and-the-resources-so-let-me-help-you. When people said, “Wow, you’re doing a volunteer year?! Good for you!” (outside of those who thought it was silly, that is), I responded with “Thanks, but it’s a privilege to be able to grow in this way. I feel so blessed to be here. I truly felt I had more to receive than to give in the realm of service. I wanted to avoid top-down service at all costs.

Fast forward from my Amate interview to my site placement choices. One of them was clearly more admin-oriented (read top-down unfortunately in my mind, not ground-level) than the others. But it also was the most intriguing, it was in a church setting focusing on parish life which is an interest of mine, and oh wait, I can’t lie, the networking opportunities seemed too good to be true in light of my God-given dreams. Every single person I talked to about my choices, including people who normally have diametrically opposed views agreed! I should put that one first. And so I did. I truly am glad I was the one to end up with that job. I believe I was meant to be there.

I spent the first half of the year feeling one of two things: 1. entirely inadequate, fighting with Excel for 3 hrs to complete something that should take 20 mins or 2. thoroughly bored, constantly losing the battle between taking some sort of creative iniative and getting online to browse blogs. The second half of the year was similar except I lost some patience and stopped searching for God in the waiting. A few concrete projects kept me sane but for a few months there, I was at the end of my rope. In the midst of unrelated personal struggles, sitting in front of a computer for 8 hrs a day, with only one hour worth of work to distract me was enough to have me crying at my desk or running to the chapel daily. How ironic—‘complaining’ about not having enough to do, when others were utterly overwhelmed with “real, down-to-earth” problems! First world problem, right?! I felt a little useless, a lot embarrassed, and rightfully humbled.

Remember what I said about thinking that service was a privilege and having to learn that with my heart? Well, I honestly can see that so much more clearly now. I would have originally suspected I would have learned that from all the people I would serve from disadvantaged circumstances but of course God always has different (better) plans.

I learned it by not being able to serve in the way I anticipated. This year of minimal service was humbling, pruning experience as I couldn’t even accept the praise of doing a volunteer year. For example, when someone like Alex Kotlowicz (author of There are No Children Here) comes for a community night and thanks us for doing Amate and working in direct service, I nod, smile and accept that it’s not for me right now. Not being able to have my need for service/for helping fulfilled by a “white-collar” job is ironically humbling. But good in that it takes my need out of the picture and leaves room for God. I learned how much of me I still wanted to offer in service. Not that that’s a bad thing per se. But when serving or helping others is how I find my worth (read, I’m a 2 on the enneagram) that need can be a negative one because our life has seasons where that need can be more tangible fulfilled than others. So offering God through me is a much better, sustainable mindset than offering me.  Searching for God in those I serve is another sustainable service practice I think!

That experience taught me another important truth about service. It is always about presence. When we are present to others, whether our clients or co-workers, we are witnessing to the presence of God. Nothing cements that better than having nothing else to give. Sure I finagled some data in Excel, administered some surveys and organized some parish workshops, but in the grand scheme of things, the work was good but not earth-shaking service. My service was to be a presence of youth, joy, and hope. The bureaucracy of the Church, while full of faithful people can be a place of old age and despair, but more commonly, just a place of the everyday, of boring and needed administration—kind of like the unsung task of changing diapers, sans the cute baby 🙂 It’s a blessing to be able to bring some youth and light and inspiration into that. [And please, don’t misunderstand me. Though different than I expected, I am so thankful for the experience and I seriously think the world of my boss and co-workers].

Another truth I’m currently learning in my heart through this past site experience is to trust in the slow work of God. I have received so much this year during my extra time to reflect at work and about my work. God tells us that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” (Luke 12:48) I know that the pruning of this year that has born little tangible fruit in the immediate sense, will yield much in the years to come. God’s timetable is not my own. God is up to so much in each of our lives. I know this time is a precious piece of the larger picture.

Lastly, outside of the context of community, I don’t think I could have learned so much or trusted that God was in my work. Our “second full-time job” of community obviously took effort and time and sometimes added to the chaos, but knowing that we had each others’ unique experiences of service made me more okay with my own experience. Alone, I would have given up hope of allowing my fruit to be pruned and ripen. My aversion to the word ‘service’ is now lessened. My seemingly top-down job taught me it doesn’t have to be that way. Service can mean we mutually offer God to one another.

My community as we finished our closing retreat for Amate House