In the Service of Others – Who’s Serving Who?Posted: January 26, 2013
“You dropped something.” I looked down, and not seeing anything, looked back at the person who made the comment. “You dropped your smile.” I immediately replied to his comment with the lost smile, the moment passed, and I moved on with what I was doing.
The church Brian and I joined, First Church (http://firstchurchseattle.org/), serves a hot breakfast to 250-300 hungry people every Sunday morning. We signed up to help and for the past few months have been volunteering one Sunday a month. Although I live and work in an urban setting, and encounter homeless men and women on a daily basis, there has not been much in the way of engagement in those encounters. I put on my “city face” and walk with purpose past those in need without pause.
The first time we were to volunteer, I will confess that I was anxious and nervous. Would the people be scary? Should I worry about my safety? I’m not proud of these sentiments, but I was ignorant, and at least I was willing to show up anyway. Since we would be on our feet for two hours, serving food, and clearing tables, I dressed down in old jeans and sneakers. We were told to show up at the front entrance of the fellowship hall to be let in, and to further demonstrate my lack of experience, I wondered if we might be confused with those seeking a hot meal. Well, I should not have even bothered with that concern, as I quickly discovered that the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is deep and wide and hardly denoted by the clothes we wear. I suspect we all could have been wearing identical track suits and the differences would still have been obvious. I think there is something intrinsic in the way we carry ourselves when we know where our next meal will come from and where we will sleep at night, just as there is when we don’t.
My worries and expectations were turned upside down in the first moments we were there. The guests were gracious and thankful, and it was rewarding to be of service. If I had known how much I would have gotten out of the experience, I would have overcome my fears long ago. To be real, it’s not all fairy tales and unicorns. There are issues and challenges with working with those who are down on their luck, but my concerns were way overblown and the rewards much greater than expected.
It was my experience with the gentleman who encouraged me to smile that made me realize this experience is not a one-way street. When he prompted me to smile, he pulled me out of my head and my single-minded focus on the task at hand. He reminded me that smiling is important. In that moment, he helped me. I had hoped that serving at these shared breakfasts would be rewarding, but I had not realized that I myself would receive the service of those I thought I was serving. On the surface, it was a simple comment, but somehow he knew that at that moment I needed someone to ask me to smile.