You Might Like Service Work if You Made it Personal

Why is community service important? Relationships and genuine encounters in the community, even over a fancy cocktail like two men are making here, are important to making service meaningful.
Like a lot of things in my Catholic experience, I initially considered service to be a good thing but didn’t really understand it and even kind of resented it. And like a lot of things in my Catholic experience, once I realized it had less to do with me and more to do with what good I can do for other people, things made a whole lot more sense.

In my case, serving people took on more meaning when it came in the context of an actual relationship with a person. I was also happy to find out that when I made a point to make a meaningful connection with someone that serving them wasn’t a drag at all, but actually became an enjoyable experience.

If the idea of service gives you the same feeling as doing chores around the house or plucking your own nose hairs — a good idea, but an agonizing experience — consider making service a little more, shall we say, personal.

Relationships are better with service

I guess I had been tempted to think about the Christian faith like it’s some sort of addendum. In other words, I’m going to live the way I want — but probably should sprinkle in some praying and some good deeds here and there. I may have even felt I was worthy of a pat on the back for making such an effort in the name of God.

But the truth is, God isn’t asking to be fit into my life. He’s asking for my life. And that means Christian service is not something to be fit into a schedule, to do when it’s convenient, or to meet a bare minimum. It’s an all-the-time requirement.

This can feel like a drag, until you realize that relationships work best when you actually try to serve the other person all the time — not just when you feel like you have to or when you’ve achieved a quota.

Take the example of a dinner party: somebody invites me over so they can cook me dinner and serve me drinks (not a drag). The least I can do is offer to help with the dishes afterwards, even if I don’t like doing dishes (spoiler alert: I do not).

Is it because I feel guilty that they cooked for me? Not really. They invited me over; nobody forced them.

Is it because we’re doing some sort of trade-off, food for cleaning? No, I already brought a bottle of wine to be polite.

I offer to help, because we’re friends and I’m happy to help. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like a chore anymore precisely because I’m doing it for a friend and I’m doing it because I like them.

People, not problems

The hardest part about serving people, in my opinion, is serving people you don’t like. The second hardest is serving people you don’t know. If nothing else, I sometimes find it hard to serve other people because, well, when does it end?

There are more than seven billion people in the world, and most of them are less fortunate than I am. I can’t serve all of them. Hell, I can’t serve most of them. So sometimes I find myself asking, what’s the point?

This is where I take inspiration from my college roommate Andrew. When we studied in Rome together, it was kind of a shock to see all the people sitting on the street corners begging for money. Many of them were children, and many of them, adults and children alike, had serious deformities. It was heartbreaking. I felt guilty that I was walking around perfectly healthy. I wondered what I could do to actually help them, but this feeling of helplessness typically led me to do nothing.

Andrew, however, took a different approach. He introduced himself to the street people. He talked with them, remembered their names, said ‘hi’ to them when he passed, and even offered an apple or a bread roll to them on a regular basis.

I swear to you, by the end of our semester, he knew every one of them by name and had real relationships with them. And when I tagged along with him, I could see that this was not a burden for him. In fact, it had become a great joy. Andrew put in the initial effort, and eventually, these people were his friends, not simply poor people on the side of the road.

No, Andrew didn’t help all 8,000,000,000 people in the world. Nor did he solve all of the problems of the people he did help. But he did what he could, and that ended up having a profound effect, not only on those he helped, but by those who witnessed it. Like me.

Playing to your strengths

Andrew has a gift for interacting with strangers, even those very different from himself. I know I’m capable of that, but it comes harder. That doesn’t mean I get a free pass from talking to strangers on the street corner, but it does mean that it might be worth me thinking about what my strengths are and putting those to work for others.

Take, for instance, my interest in craft cocktails. It started as a totally selfish pursuit: I wanted to learn how to make cocktails so I could drink them and enjoy them and maybe save some money that I’d otherwise spend at the bar.

This interest led me to the Minnesota School of Bartending (yep, that’s a thing) and then to work for — and learn from — one of the preeminent bartenders in Minneapolis. It’s been really fun to learn how to make some really cool cocktails — and even more fun to drink them.

As it turns out, other people like drinking quality cocktails, too. So I started hosting little parties to practice, and they turned into bigger parties that I kept hosting even when I didn’t need the practice anymore.

Then I brought my show on the road and started mixing cocktails at the monthly young adult event at my church. Now the event would be unthinkable without the cocktails, if I do say so myself, and I’m happy to continue to lend my talents to the cause. While you may not think of this as a typical service activity, it’s one way I give back.

Making strangers into friends

As more people find out that I can make a tasty drink, I am asked to mix drinks for people’s birthdays or other occasions. And while I find real satisfaction in making drinks for people, it also provides an opportunity to have interesting conversations and make meaningful connections with friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers. Bartenders seem to have a unique vantage point in this regard, one that’s even led a priest to explore his shared experiences with those who make his drinks.

It’s those kind of conversations that for me really take service beyond the the realm of Christian chores to something more meaningful. As another example, we have a pregnancy help center here in the Twin Cities that takes volunteers to help support young women and men with unexpected pregnancies before and after birth.

A buddy of mine volunteers there and provides free professional development, helping with résumés and interview skills and whatnot. After a while, his volunteering felt less like helping strangers and more like making new friends — all the while using his gifts to do some real good for others.

Giving Service a Try

Would you like to make service a bigger part of your life? Start here:

  1. Serve those close to you. That means roommates, family, friends, and co-workers. Think of simple ways you can be more kind and make life easier for them. Surprise — this will typically make life easier for you, too!
  2. Consider your gifts. What are you good at that you could offer to other people? If you don’t know, ask others to help you better know your own gifts and talents and brainstorm ways to use them for others.
  3. Trust the process. The conversations you have while serving can be as important (or more) than the actual work you do. So don’t be in a hurry to just get it done.

Pope Francis has preached a lot about how Christians should not just serve others, but to encounter the people we serve. He has a great love and concern for the poor, to be sure, but he also knows the transformative power that personal service can have on both those who are served and those who are serving. Saints, after all, didn’t become holy because they accomplished a lot of good, but because they were transformed from within, often by the people they served.

Take time to think about your gifts and how you can share them with the people around you. Little by little, we can transform the world. Cheers!
Grotto infographic of 3 ways to make service personal: 1. Serve those close to you; 2. Consider your gifts; 3. Trust the process.

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