The January wind bit my face as I emerged from the subway onto the empty streets of lower Manhattan. It was 5:28 on a Monday morning, and I was on my way to volunteer for the first time at the New York City Rescue Mission. A friend had signed up to serve there through Hope for New York, an organization that supports non-profits like the rescue mission with funding and volunteers. He asked me if I would help serve breakfast, too. “Sure,” I said at the time, now questioning why I wasn’t still asleep at home.
“We got plain oatmeal or oatmeal with peaches,” the crew leader posed to each person. “Which one ya want?” “Peaches,” a tired voice mumbled. Gloop. I dipped the ladle into the deep pot of oatmeal and dished out a bowl. “Here you go.” My friend gave him a day-old bagel from a local shop and he disappeared to go eat. The next face stepped and the questions was repeated. “I’ll have the peaches.” Gloop. “Gimme a plain.” Gloop. “That got any sugar in it? Then give me a peach one.” Gloop. A hundred and sixty bowls of oatmeal later, I scraped the dregs out of the pans, swept and mopped the floors, and left that world to go back to my normal one.
I served the coffee the next week. “Good morning," I'd say, trying to be friendly but not glib, "Would you like some coffee?" Unlike the oatmeal line, everybody loved the coffee guy. “Oh yeah, gimme some of that good stuff!” “That’s my fuel, I love it!” “Man, you made it GOOD this morning,” they’d say as they came back for refills. Making other people happy made me happy, so I continued to go back every Monday morning to serve this new community.
Each week, participants in the mission’s programming served alongside the outside volunteers. Hesitant hellos and awkward introductions characterized our introductions at 5:30am. The participants hung back, to size us up, their eyes asking, “Can I trust you to know me and still accept me? Or will you reject me when you realize I don’t measure up?”
But slowly, walls came down. One morning, as we wrapped forks and spoons in napkins, different volunteers shared things they enjoyed about New York City. During a long pause, a voice from the far end of the table whispered, “I like the architecture.” It was a young woman, silenced by shame for the previous three weeks, testing the spirit of the group. Later, as we served the food, she began to open up, telling me about her family, her childhood, and her college degree in architecture. Every Monday at the mission broke down more and more walls between my new friends and me, as I listened to their stories of who they were and what they loved.
But as the weeks went by and I served the same oatmeal to the same people, my idealism began to deflate. Was I actually doing anything meaningful? As I reflected on this question, I realized I had confused my role. When we volunteer, we often want instant results, to be saviors who come in and solve people’s problems. But volunteering is not about lifting others up to our level, but to create a foundation for them to stand on themselves. My new friends didn’t need someone to fix them, but rather someone to help provide a stability for them to build off of. From there, I could encourage them as a peer, by listening to where they’d been and affirming where they wanted to go. The people at the rescue didn’t need someone to solve their problems, they instead needed hope, to activate their own gifts and abilities. And hope is a funny thing, because you can’t give it to people, you can only help foster it in them.
As I walked by a deli recently, I watched a homeless man scratch off a handful of lottery tickets. “What a waste of money?” I caught myself thinking. It dawned on me, though, that he didn’t play the lottery because he was bad at math, but rather because it was the only source of hope in his life. Hope that things could be different; hope that his life could get better.
You and I look down on public lotteries because we’ve already won a different one, the cosmic lottery. Out of all of the potential time periods, countries, and families we could have been born into, we’ve hit the jackpot. We’ve been born into a society of unlimited food, comfortable homes, and strong social and financial safety nets, blessed with the talent, encouragement, and opportunities to reach the upper echelons of the winners.
But if you’re a Christian, you know there’s no such thing as a cosmic lottery. Your life isn’t randomly assigned, but rather chosen for you by God. He’s blessed you with talent, resources, and opportunities that you did nothing to deserve. Unfortunately, our natural reaction isn’t to use those blessings for others, but to pursue more wins for ourselves.
God’s blessed us with so much hope, yet we fixate on getting even more. I hope I have a better weekend, a better job, a better apartment, and an overall better life. We've turned God's Kingdom into an individualistic pursuit, where we're content as long as He's giving us what we want. And in this obsession with our hopes, we lose sight of the many people around us who don’t have hope, and feel trapped in their current hardships.
Jesus’ life, though, cuts a radically different path. He left his comfortable life in heaven to sacrifice everything for you, to pursue you when you were broken, hurting, and without hope. How can I be glad Jesus gave his life to give me hope, but be unwilling to sacrifice to give that hope to others? So take a moment to ask yourself, “How can I use my gifts and resources God has blessed me with to cultivate hope in my community?” You might be surprised how God answers that question. It turns out I’m pretty good at serving oatmeal. Gloop.
We’re so blessed in New York City to have Hope for New York, an organization that connects volunteers and funding to incredible affiliates like New York City Rescue Mission. They provide so many opportunities to share hope in New York City, and have helped me to find a place to use my gifts to serve others.
Hope for New York’s Young Supporter’s Benefit is just a few weeks away on May 23rd, and is a great way to both figure out how you could serve and contribute financially to what God is doing in New York. I’d love to see you there! More info and tickets can be found at hfny.org/springbenefit