When most of us think about serving, we don’t instantly think about mutuality or reciprocity in our service. We have a sense that God has called us to serve others. We hear messages about how God calls us to his mission of proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel to the poor. Then we take off to serve those who are “less fortunate” than we are: the lost, the poor, the marginalized, the voiceless.
But who are these voiceless? I’ve personally never met them. I have, however, met plenty of people who go unheard. People in my Chicago neighborhood who are the “undesirables” have a lot to say about life, about their problems, about the solutions, and yes, even about faith in Jesus. But who is asking them what they think? Even those who come to “serve” them don’t ask. Instead, they assume they know what the issues are and develop magnificent solutions that are pretty far from what will actually work.
“Do just do something—sit there!”
When I was the Chicago Urban Program (CUP) director for InterVarsity, I would tell students, “We’ve heard the American saying, ‘Don't just sit there—do something.’ But let me share a Filipino saying: ‘Do just do something—sit there!’ This week as you serve people, don’t just fix things and accomplish things. Sit there! Listen to people’s stories. Ask them what they enjoy about their community; see beauty through their eyes. Ask them what they’d want to change about their community; see the brokenness through their eyes. Listen to their voices, because no one else is!”
An alumni of a very prestigious graduate school recently came to my church to meet with our congregation and share her vision for a charter school. People from the community were not happy with the idea; the questions they asked and the looks on their faces clearly communicated that.
The lead pastor met with her later and suggested that she actually involve people from the community in assessing whether her approach to educating their children would work. No amount of fancy equipment would lure them into entrusting their children to her school, he explained, if they did not trust her. She had great intentions and wanted to serve our community, but she didn’t start by listening to parents here.
Go to the people.
Live among them,
Start with what they know,
Build on what they have;
But of the best leaders,
When their task is done,
The people will remark
“We have done it ourselves."
Open to Being Transformed
John Hochevar, the founder and previous director of the CUP, often gave students a charge to “be blessed and be a blessing.” This call to reciprocity and mutual blessing surprised students.
As a former CUP director and now a pastor in a local church that receives CUP students, the idea of students being blessed by those they serve is highlighted even more for me. The students who see themselves as only contributing (not receiving) really stick out! John Zayas, our lead pastor, says this after a decade of partnership with InterVarsity students:
I’m always cautious about how open they are to listen and enter into the new experience. They need to be open to be transformed by the experience versus checking it off of their academic to dos. You can see the ones who really want to serve and learn and the ones who do it because it’s going to look good on their portfolio.The ones who dive in and ask questions—that’s good. They are looking not just to serve, or to have an adventure, but for an experience of being transformed.
As I think about next steps for those who have been serving or desire to serve, I’d recommend a few things:
Serve locally and consistently. Don't wait for a global experience or until after graduation. You can serve today within a five-mile radius.
Serve in community. Work with your InterVarsity or church leaders to integrate service into your small groups, large groups, spring breaks, etc.
Serve with mutuality in mind. The people you go to serve have thoughts and feelings they will share with you if you’ll listen—and they might just bless you as much or more than you bless them.
Live Life is a campaign, run in partnership with World Vision and International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, to bring college students and young adults around the world together to explore the meaning of “life in all its fullness” during the Easter/Lenten season. The campaign features six weekly challenges, stories of students making a difference from countries around the world, and a global sharing platform where each person can share how they are uniquely participating. The InterVarsity blog is participating by featuring corresponding posts each Sunday written by InterVarsity's Urban Projects directors.
To join others from more than 80 countries around the world and engage in serving and learning from someone else, go to worldvisionyouth.org.
Sandra Van Opstal lives and ministers in an under-resourced community on the west side of Chicago. She is the author of The Mission of Worship, which seeks to integrate her experience as a worship leader and urban practitioner. She and her husband, Karl, enjoy learning about urban gardening from their neighbor Carmen, who has been doing it for decades. Keep up with them at their blog.