I enjoy volunteering because I like to help people, and it feels good to be useful. It’s one of the ways I put my humanitarian and faith convictions into practice. But I didn’t expect the way it would change my perspective.
Volunteering helped me develop a meaningful relationship with someone who grew up in different circumstances than I did, and that friendship has changed the way I see the world. It has challenged me to grow and recognize our common human dignity in a new way.
Like many people, I grew up having to work for everything I wanted. I wasn’t born into wealth and I didn’t have parents who slid me a $20 whenever I needed gas money — I was told to get a job and earn it myself. I’m so grateful for the way I was raised and the work ethic I developed because of it, but by the time I was in college, I had no tolerance for people who appeared lazy or whom I thought were seeking a handout.
If I can juggle 18 credit hours, run on the track team, and work as both a nanny and a waitress, what’s their excuse?
I’d grown self-righteous and judgmental. Whenever I saw a homeless person, my first reaction was not empathy or curiosity — it was judgment from a hardened heart.
They probably got themselves into that mess. Why should I give them my hard-earned money? They seem perfectly fine — they just need to get a job, for crying out loud! That changed as I developed a friendship with someone I met when I began volunteering.
When I was looking to deepen my faith life, I became a volunteer with an organization that partners with people affected by poverty. I came into it thinking I was going to help fix a problem, maybe even save someone. Little did I know, the healing would be happening with God at work in my own heart.
During one of my first Saturdays volunteering with this organization, I became instant friends with a woman with whom I was assigned certain tasks. We were stacking canned goods on a pantry shelf for hours, yet when we were told the shift was up, it felt like only a few minutes had gone by. Our conversation was easy and the laughter was endless because she had a way of telling stories that took a turn when you least expected it. She appeared close to my age and dressed similarly to me. As I continued coming in to volunteer, so did she. We chose to partner up for different tasks whenever possible because we clicked so well.
She was joyful and witty. She not only kept up with my work pace, but had me sweating to keep up with her. She often bragged about her babies (in the most endearing way) and shared all of her best mom tips when I told her I was headed to pick up my first foster daughter. We exchanged numbers and began texting every so often.
Week after week, I looked forward to volunteering and spending time with her. I grew more and more curious about what led her to volunteer there. After all, I was there because my faith had led me to volunteer, and I wondered if maybe she had a similar faith journey. Finally, I asked.
I got the answer I was least expecting when she shared with me that just one year prior, she and her kids were homeless and that this ministry helped her get back on her feet.
I’ll never forget feeling so stunned to learn that my new friend had once been homeless. It’s something that had always seemed so far away. No one whom I knew personally had ever experienced homelessness — until I learned this about her. My heart began to soften and my pride was being chipped away.
If I hadn’t become a volunteer, I might not have ever met her. If I hadn’t met her, I might not have made friends with someone who has had life experience like hers. If I had never made friends with someone whose life experience was different from mine, I might not have had my heart softened and my perspective challenged when it comes to poverty.
Now, I no longer assume that someone is struggling with poverty just because they made bad decisions or have a poor work ethic. I no longer view individuals experiencing homeless as less intelligent or less hard-working than me. I no longer look at them with pity or judgment. I see them as people worthy of love, grace, and mercy. I long to hear their story and I’m becoming less surprised when they have a thing or two to teach me.
I owe all of this to my friend — my equal and my sister in Christ.