I have been asked to speak about why I volunteer at Old First, keeping in mind the theme of Volunteer Sunday: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (! Peter 3:13)
Let me start by describing what I do as a volunteer. I am one of the many volunteers that support our summer shelter program. For several years now, Old First has served as a summer respite shelter for homeless men.
During the summer months, when the city is certain that leaving folks unsheltered will not lead to freezing deaths and bad press, a significant portion of the city shelter system shuts down. Civilian organizations, like Old First and the non-profit organization CAMBA, step up to fill this gap in service.
For a few months, we provide dinners and beds for homeless men currently working their way through CAMBA’s housing program. We do this every weeknight, throughout the season. We get somewhere between seven and fourteen men each night. Volunteers greet them, feed them, keep them safe through the night, and see them off again in the morning.
We do this with the generous support of other congregations and non-religiously affiliated volunteers. The volunteer crew has included artists and bankers, cooks and scholars, religious leaders and atheists, grandparents and school children. The shelter clients range from their early 20s to nearly 80. They include construction workers and shop clerks, custodians and the unemployed, parents and runaways, and at least one painter.
My short path to working for the respite shelter began with an experiment in charity. I won’t go into the Biblical and personal inspirations for the particular experiment, but a few years back I decided that I would always carry change in my pocket and I would, without hesitation or consideration, give money to anybody who asked for it. I would not judge the stories I was given. I would not turn away people who, given the circumstances, were certainly lying to me. I would not attempt to evaluate the legitimacy of the need of the person asking. I would just say yes. I would just give them some of what I had.
Obviously, this small experiment has not ended poverty and want in the city. I have no idea – no way of even guessing – what impact this has had on the people who have asked me for money. I will say, however, that it has had an impact on me. Essayist Erik Reece writes that the critical impulse is a byproduct of the Fall. He states that, before the Fall, Adam and Eve engaged the world around them through creative giving. Mirroring the Creator who gave life to everything, Adam and Eve gave names to everything. It was only after eating the forbidden fruit that they began to understand aspects of the world around them as good or evil. That’s much too philosophical for me to unpack, but I do take this away: We were fully human and giving before we ever got into the business of judging. I decided that, to the best of my ability, I’d try to commit to a relationship of giving and charity as my default position. I’d commit to giving and could work out the details later.
I was well into this experiment, when I was approached by Cynthia and Daniel to help with the shelter. I was hesitant at first. There was a valid political criticism of the summer shelter program: it could be argued that, by covering the gap in shelter coverage, we were enabling the government to shirk what should be their year-round responsibility to shelter these men. I was also sympathetic to those who envisioned that we would be turning our sanctuary into some Dickensian holding tank for the hopeless.
I discovered that the reality of the program in no way matches this Jacob Riisian nightmare – but how would you know at first, if you’d never seen the shelter program in action? Finally, there’s the obvious jealousy I think we all feel about whatever sliver of time is left to us when every other demand takes its cut. I’ve never met a person who actually suffers from having too much time on their hands.
But, in keeping with the personal experiment that I was already running, I decided that I would commit to volunteering first and worry about the details later. A year later, as we look at another season, I’ve re-committed to volunteering again.
Why? First, if there’s something liberating about embracing the logic of the gift in your approach to others. There’s a freedom in not having to play the judge. This feeling is strengthened in me when the focus of the relationship is food and shelter. Every Sunday, we are asked to give money as a symbol of our bodies, our labor. And it is good and right to do so. But I can’t help but feel that there’s something pure about taking the symbolism out of the equation. Give food to a hungry person. Give a tired wanderer a safe place to rest. And do it solely because they showed up at your door hungry and tired. So little of my work-a-day week makes that much sense. The simplicity of it is truly a blessing.
Second, it serves as a strong bond to my faith. Participating in this shelter program was a lesson in God’s love, Jesus’s love. It isn’t an accident that feasts and food feature so prominently in the Bible, are an aspect of so many divine miracles. Brecht writes, “First bread, then morals.” Any of the shelter clients and the shelter volunteers can tell you that the playwright is making an unnecessary and erroneous distinction. Feeding the hungry is always a moral exercise. A slice of bread is a moral fact. A clean bed is a concrete statement of how you value your fellow man.
This is, I think, the explanation for why, strangely, Old First’s shelter has a curious reputation for being the gourmet client’s shelter of choice. Our food here is, I’m told, unusually good, as far as the shelters go. I submit that this is because it is reflection of us at our best.
Which leads us to my third and final reason for volunteering. Free food. And its usually pretty good. Last year, we had at least one professional chef on the team. So that’s some no-joke good food. Just saying.
I volunteer because it is where I put to test the proposition that a loving God made a good world and find, again and again, the proposition holds. I thank Cynthia and Daniel for the invitation to this experience. I thank the other volunteers who have kept the program going. I thank Jabe, who is leading the effort this coming summer. And I give thanks to everybody at Old First who supported this wonderful thing we do.
This is not necessarily my pitch for why you should join us on the shelter team - though you should, we’d love to have you. What I do recommend, from my own experience, is putting the adopting a attitude of giving towards the world. Commit to volunteer before you sweat the details. Volunteer, and see where it leads you.