I drove away from a meeting in tension not too long ago. Tension over what, I wasn’t super sure. We had been talking about what else we could be doing for the students and families we serve at a certain location where we host programs. But for some reason, I felt after the meeting, somehow I was missing the mark. I felt like I was in my Sophomore English class again, learning for the first time the significance of symbolism and stabbing at meaning for every insignificant object in every short story I read.
I reflected on this with a friend about a week later. What was it that caused me to feel so uneasy about my participation in this meeting? And it hit me, square in the face, as I processed through what God was trying to tell me about my role at Neighbors’ House.
I grew up in what could possibly be the most stable nuclear family one could imagine. I never wondered if I was loved, I never wanted for anything material, I never felt neglected or forgotten. My childhood, in my memory, was idyllic, and when people ask about how my parents raised my brothers and me, I can honestly tell them that I have so few criticisms they aren’t even worth mentioning.
When I compare the life I’ve had with the lives of the kids we serve, I see disparity. Where there was stability in my childhood, there is often chaos, where there was love, there is often neglect, where there was a feeling of being care for and about, there is often a feeling of insignificance, of being discarded.
As I thought through my intent behind our work at Neighbors’ House, I realized so often I’m seeing these disparities and hoping the work we’re doing will bring the kids a bit closer to what my reality was. I’m looking to bring them up to where I was, not meeting them where they are.
But God is good, in that, He not only sees where they are, in any disparity, but He loves them right there. He doesn’t have expectation for His love, it’s not measured and equated based on outcomes. He doesn’t have charts to show His love is being effective. It isn’t tied up in whether or not these kids take advantage of it or squander it away. He is reaching down from heaven to meet these kids where they are and He’s loving them perfectly, with no expectations. He doesn’t need them to accomplish anything. He loves them because He created them.
Then I had a fish tank moment. A moment when I thought I saw something clearly from straight on, but then I peeked around the corner to see a whole new dimension of the thing. I realized in thinking about how God loves these kids in comparison with how I’ve been trying to love them, that God loves me in my imperfection too. When I have ill intentions, which, whether I admit it or not is almost always do, God sees inside me, His creation, and loves me through it. I may think I am more lovable because I’ve been given every advantage in life, but I am in the life boat with these kids. I have no good thing to offer God, instead He offers good things for and through me. He sees me, trying to wield love, like a child with a baseball bat, blindfolded, swinging at a pinata. But instead of giving me a few tries then moving on to the next person, He puts His hands over mine and teaches me how to love by finding me, in my blindness and brokenness, and guiding me in His love.
Back to school time is a love and hate time for lots of people. There are routines to go back to, newly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, and new beginnings. But it’s also the end of summer, the end of time to travel and relax and maybe even be bored.
When school starts back up, I reflect on the summer. This summer went so smoothly and seemed so fruitful at Neighbors’ House. We had a few new programs and a couple that are considering starting up Reading and Homework Clubs this fall. We had so many kids come through our programs. So many sweet and joyful faces. And a few who were not so happy to be with us at first who had to be won over with some games and snacks.
It’s hard to tell, sometimes, the effect our programs are having. But in both new and old programs, I heard so much thankful feedback for what Neighbors’ House is doing, especially from parents. Kids in some programs would be waiting for volunteers when they showed up each night and ask to stay to play just one more game of four square.
The need for the services we provide is great, but there is a greater need still. It’s the thing that makes the parents thankful and the students wanting to hang out just a little bit longer. They are usually skeptical at first of a free program with free supplies and free books. It’s unusual in this world to get something for nothing. But even more than the supplies they get, it’s the unconditional love that doesn’t come from the volunteers but from God himself that stands out.
It’s such an amazing experience to see someone being loved by God through something He’s called us to participate in. It such an amazing thing that God lets us, broken and undeserving humans, participate in His outpouring of love.
This summer my daughter has caught a love of baking. She asks to bake from time to time and since she’s small I usually give her a little bit of whatever we’re baking so she can play with it, experiment, figure it out. Her favorite thing is to spread a bunch of flour out on the counter and roll out pie dough. I give her a little wooden rolling pin and she goes to town of the bit of dough she’s been allotted. She gets so much joy in this participation, she would sit and roll out dough all day if I let her.
I like to think God is giving us a bit of work like that. He wants us to be part of it. He wants us to enjoy the work, to learn and figure out what service looks like. And I, personally, am so thankful for my little allotment at Neighbors’ House.
Going into the school year, there’s more work to be done. There are programs and kids and families waiting for us to come alongside them. And likewise, there is work to be done that is allotted by our good God, for them, but also, for us. To teach us and to remind us that we are loved unconditionally. Resting in that love, we can be safe to learn just how to love others the way he’s loved us.
During a recent volunteer meeting for our summer programs, a group of us sat dividing days up that we were able to come during the week. When asked if anyone could come a few extra days, one person obliged and agreed to come an extra day. A veteran volunteer chimed in to say, “I bet once you come on Monday, you’re going to want to come back.”
It’s so true. The last couple summers I’ve told myself I’m going to take myself out of some programs and let the volunteers run them independently of me. But I can’t seem to stop going to our programs because it is my favorite part of my job.
A few of my favorite moments so far this summer include a call and response game we played in which students had to make up dance moves for the rest of the group to copy. If you’ve never asked the kids in your life to make up dance moves, please do it. You won’t be sorry. Another favorite was a little girl who asked “when do we get to go home?” on Monday and came up to me at the end of the day Tuesday to say, “I like it here now!” And there’s always a moment when a kid finishes a particularly frustrating or intricate craft and holds it up to show it off to the rest of the group.
But honestly, the reading buddy time is my favorite part, when students pick a book and sit down with a volunteer to read either one on one or in small groups. This is the time when I get to really see the kids; when they’re removed from the pressure of who they’re expected to be in the group and get to be by themselves, they show so much of who they are.
This happened with one girl, who had given me nothing but the pre-teen girl equivalent of the stiff arm all night. She used her quick wit and humor to keep me arm distance away from her, locked and loaded with a come back to everything I had to say. Luckily I used to know a girl kind of like that. When it was reading buddy time, I made sure she was with me. I ended up reading with her and her cousin and spent most of the time hearing about how they are actually “sister cousins” and their family history. They talked more than we read, but as we read a book about two friends who met in an unlikely way, they connected themselves to the story and opened up about their lives and their friends. I got to see the creation in them and I got to hear their story.
This is why I keep coming back to every program I can. This is the work I love to do. And as I glance around the room during reading buddy time, I see the expressions on kid’s faces as they get the direct attention of a volunteer who is just there to be with them. It’s a double edged blessing. I used to go to programs expecting to be the blessing and so often I realize I’m also the blessed.
God calls us to go to the least of these, but the surprise isn’t that we get to bless them, it’s how He humbles us by blessing us and teaching us through the people He calls us to.The people who have been volunteering for a long time with Neighbors’ House know this so well. It’s not what gets them to come on Monday, but it’s what keeps them coming through Friday night.
Working with broken people is inevitable. We are all broken, some chipped, some shattered, some nothing but sharp pieces on the ground threatening to cut even well meaning people who are just trying to clean up the mess.
In a Sunday school class recently, a friend confessed, “I told God this week I’m done with his broken people.” And while we could all judge that statement, I have a feeling we can all also relate.
I took a pottery class to fulfill my fine arts credit in my undergrad. I was not great. My first little vase was about six inches tall and weighed about five pounds. But until the clay pieces went into the kiln, there was so much grace to be had. Even if something had dried overnight, if it wasn’t baked, it could be thrown back in with the wet clay and mixed until it became soft and workable again.
I don’t believe that anyone in this life has been put in the kiln yet. I believe we are all still workable.
Many of the students we encountered this school year were broken, severely, but also in varying degrees. Many students moved due to family dynamic changes, financial issues, and some because of traumatic life events that unfolded over the past school year. When I talk with other volunteers about the things our students are experiencing everyday, I can’t reconcile their experiences to the bright smiling faces that come for Reading and Homework Clubs. They are filled with humor and joy, even as they come from very broken situations.
But my friend’s confession didn’t end with “I’m done with broken people.” There was a request tagged on the end of that prayer. “…but don’t leave me out of what You’re doing with Your people.”
Some days the weight of what’s happening in our students’ lives lies heavy on our hearts. We pray for the students, asking God to save them. But I also pray for them that they remain soft, formable, ready for God to shape them. I pray that if someone breaks them that another has the grace to put them back in with the wet clay until they are soft again. I pray that I could be that person for some of our kids. Because it’s hard and sometimes dangerous work to work with broken things, but God, don’t leave me out of what You’re doing with Your people.
It’s a season of spring at Neighbors’ House. Not just in terms of the weather getting warmer, the trees getting leaves, and flowers blooming, but in the lives of the kids and families that we serve. It seems like every time I talk to a volunteer they have a story about a student responding to a Bible story, asking for a copy of the Jesus Storybook Bible we are using, or a parent asking for prayer and support.
One of the parents recently came to a volunteer with concerns about her daughter, who is entering high school this coming year, and her opportunities to go to college. The parent had not attended college herself and was wracked with anxiety and fear over student loans, financial aid, scholarships, and what seemed to be the impossible task of helping her daughter through that process. After talking through the subject at some length with her, a couple volunteers prayed with her and offered their help in the years to come when things get confusing with the process of sending her daughter to college. She thanked them, with tears in her eyes.
A few students who were at the Gideon Court Reading and Homework Club listened to the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet and the last supper a few weeks ago. We explained to them that all you have to do is believe in Jesus and accept the gift he’s offering to which they all shouted excitedly “we believe, we believe!”
God is breaking the ground in these students’ and their parents’ lives. But he’s breaking the ground in volunteers’ lives and mine as well as through the people we serve.
I was talking to a couple volunteers about how the program they’re involved with is going and they were telling me how blessed they feel getting to interact with these kids each week. They picked out a few and quoted a few of the things they’ve said recently with joy forming wrinkles around their eyes as they laughed about the indescribable way these kids lighten their lives.
I was reading Mark 10 and noticed that in the middle of Jesus talking about sex, money, and power, Jesus stops and calls the children to him. He looks at those around him and says, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
I think of this now, when I go to our programs. I see the joy these kids have as they yell, “I believe!” These kids are hilarious and joyous and hopeful despite not having many people supplying them with humor, joy, or hope. And in the midst of the parent who is worried about sending her daughter to college, there are children who have no question about whether or not there is hope for their future. Without question they respond to Jesus’ gift of love and salvation by unbound shouts of “I believe!” This is what I think God is calling us to do. To be like them. To be undignified and throw away our doubts to shout “I believe!” like we are small children who have no reason to think God wouldn’t save us.
This time of spring goes by quickly as summer approaches. Pretty soon we will wake up to summer, where it is 80 degrees before noon and the sun warms through our skin into our bones. God has given us a time of Spring at Neighbors’ House, but what we are waiting for is the completion of the good work he has started in us. During the spring, may we all say “I believe,” so He can continue to do the good work in and through us, ushering us closer to the summer He has promised.
I’m just going to admit something. I am not crazy about volunteer recruiting. I hate asking people to do things for me. If I can do it all myself without asking someone else I will, even if it’s a large and complicated task. I was the kid in school who would get assigned a group project, look at my group and say, “if you all just leave me alone, I will do all the work.”
And a big part of the reason I don’t like to ask is because I know everyone is busy. People are overworked and feel like they need to go above and beyond at work. People have families they want to spend time with and homes where they would like to be in the evenings and weekends. Especially when I try to ask my teacher friends to give up some of their very precious and typically very rare time away from their jobs, I feel like I’m asking too much of them.
But I can’t do the whole job of Neighbors’ House alone and I think it’s an important and biblical matter that others get involved.
In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about the end times when the “son comes in glory” and how he will say to some:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”
“When?” they ask. They don’t know when they’ve done any of this for Jesus. But Jesus responds, “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Jesus loves the least of these. He loves them like family. Whatever someone does for my kids or my husband, in reality, they are doing it for me, because I love my family and I love when others love them too.
As Christians, whatever we do with our lives we are doing for Christ. This is not a check list. It isn’t like, “Fed someone, check! Clothed someone, check!” God is calling us to reach out, provide for practical needs as we approach people in love and grace and truth. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to fit on a cute piece of note pad paper. The service he calls us to is messy because people are messy.
As the church we have an understanding of tithing. We typically give 10% of our earnings back to God, whatever that looks like for the individual, it isn’t a requirement, but just a guideline to follow.
What if we had a something like that for giving our time? I don’t want to stray into being legalistic with this suggestion, but what if we all just had some expectation for involvement in outreach in our own communities? For some that might mean taking the first step of getting involved in outreach ministry in the community. For some it could be increasing the amount of time dedicated to outreach ministries. Others may want to lean more into their outreach connections during their prayer time or show up to their volunteer opportunity with a better attitude.
Whatever it may be for you, a tithe commitment takes sacrifice. When we went to buy a house this past year an online mortgage calculator told use we could afford a house we absolutely could not afford. But someone told me, “those things don’t take into account that you are giving, because most people in our culture aren’t.”
We sacrifice material things to tithe. What do we have to sacrifice to give time? Emotional things perhaps? It may mean giving up the luxury of the alone time we wanted, the shows we wanted to catch up on, the Saturday morning breakfast we want, the evening wind down we are used to. Some time is going to have to be sacrificed.
But I promise, the sacrifice and the mess will all be worth it. Not only when we get to heaven and Jesus says to us “what you have done for the least of these you have done for me,” but also when we start to realize the impact that building relationships with the least of these does in our own hearts.
The greatest secret I’ve learned from volunteering with different local ministries is not the self satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing something good. It is the change God has created in my heart through those I’ve served. It’s the true lessons God has taught me through the kid’s at Neighbors’ House.
And it’s one other thing too.
At the end of one of our programs, the kids know they get candy. I stand by the door with the bucket of candy and they line up and take a couple pieces on their way out. As they grab what they want and head back out into the world, I get to provide a little sweetness in what is typically otherwise a chaotic life for these kids. For some of them, Neighbors’ House volunteers are the only steady, constant people in their lives. When I’m at these programs, I get to participate in doling out the ridiculous, abundant, and steady love of God. And when I do, it feels like letting these kids, no matter what they’ve done that day, have some candy.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
It can be hard work to work with kids. Kids test boundaries and try patience. Often it is a thankless job and the only feedback given is what could be done better. People who work with kids often go their whole lives not knowing how many kids were affected by their teaching, their presence, and their love.
Jesus makes it clear in scripture that he values children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Sometimes I find myself asking,”why?” Why does God value children? Why does he say they are, “greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Last Thursday a little girl came to Homework club a few minutes early. She took off her coat and signed in. I asked her how her day was and what she learned that day. She told me she learned about Michael Jordan.
“Oh yeah? What did you learn about him?”
“I learned that his dad was murdered because he had a gambling problem.”
Oh goodness. From the mouths of babes. Now, I’m sure her teachers taught her other things about Michael Jordan. She was learning about him for black history month so I’m sure they told her he was one of the best basketball players to ever play the game. But what she took from the whole lesson was that his father was murdered.
I texted this story to another volunteer who knows the girl and we laughed about it and in that moment I think I saw an invisible quality, almost like magic, that Jesus sees in children. There was innocence on the girl’s face as she told me what she knew about Michael Jordan’s dad being murdered, just recounting facts.
Jesus asks us to take the “lowly” position of a child, but I really believe he is saying this tongue in cheek because there are so many stories like this one. Stories where a kid has taken what may have been a mundane day and turned it around with one sentence. Ask anyone who works with elementary kids to tell a story about a time a kids said something hilarious without knowing it and they will have at least five locked and loaded.
There is a magic about kids and Jesus sees it. There is a joy in seeing these magic moments that puts all the trying times to rest. And there is a love, perfect and holy, that shines through the joyful but also the trying times with children.
When I find myself questioning why God values children, all I really need to do is spend one afternoon with them to see the invisible quality that God loves. And when I get to participate in that love, the gift is no longer being given to the kids from me, but to me from God.