Last weekend, our church hosted its annual Christmas for Kids outreach. It was an event like others hosted in churches and community centers around the country. Through it, we desired to help parents that have fallen on hard times to gift their kids for Christmas and perhaps bring some degree of normalcy and happiness into their homes during what might be a rough patch of life.
There were idyllic moments during that day that motivate many of us to serve or volunteer. Moments such as the many parents that were overcome with emotion when realizing their son or daughter would have a gift to open on Christmas. Or other moments in which guests felt God tug on their heart during prayer. These moments are the expectation that so many of us have when looking for opportunities to serve.
But what happens when it doesn’t go that way?
I was a told a story recently by a person who volunteered at a soup kitchen for the homeless. She went into the day with the highest of expectations that she’d be met with smiling faces grateful for a hot meal and a warm room. However, during her service working the meal line, she was barely met with eye contact or more than a grumbled thanks from the guests. When asked how she felt, she said, “I really didn’t like it and didn’t want to be there. I know life’s hard but I felt they should have had more gratitude.” Those words read from a blog post, may cause you to cringe a bit. However, if you’ve been in her shoes, you might understand. I did. But volunteers’ expectation devoid of context has the potential to cancel out the community building desired for either party in the interaction.
If our Christmas for Kids outreach was to be successful and lift the hearts of both volunteers and guests, we had to keep a number of things in mind:
Material possessions and appearances don’t equal reality
Assumptions can’t be made based on appearance. Nails done… My sister is in beauty school and needed to practice for a manicurist test. New shiny truck… it was bought before the factory announced their layoffs. People shouldn’t feel checked over and judged in a moment in which they’re considerably vulnerable.
Shed expectations of gratitude
Real charity begins when we shed expectations of how we expect those served to react. Take a moment to think how you might feel if the only way you’d make it through the night was to accept charity from someone who in a few hours will be in a warm bed, with a stocked fridge, surrounded by electronics. Think from this perspective: we sometimes dread asking someone to watch the kids for an hour so an errand can be run. Now imagine the feeling of standing in a line to receive food or items that most people take for granted.
During these charitable moments, people being served want more than someone standing behind a table to do a few hours of service before going back to some degree of living comfort that exists in their everyday life. Take down your shield, learn the people, their stories, and their hardships. Finding commonality and encouraging growth steps can help make the moment real, build relationships, and lay the groundwork for transformation.
By keeping these items in mind, hopefully we can fulfill our desire to help, without making them feel worse for their vulnerability. During Christmas for Kids, by the many stories of laughter and tears, I think our group accomplished that. Not that we have it all right, but as a community center we will continue to be mindful of our hearts and be mindful to check our own expectations at the door.