Friday, January 2, 2015

Seeds of Service: Serving Where You Are Needed

The following is a submission of mine accepted by a project called Seeds of Service.  It is a book that will be a collection of stories from many faith-based volunteers reflecting on the lessons they learned during their time.  It is in limbo at the moment and may never be published but this is what I wrote regarding my time at The Farm:

After graduating from the University Of Notre Dame in 2009, I spent 14 months in Vanceburg, KY working for The Glenmary Farm.  The Farm brings in high school and college aged youths for a week at a time to partake in a service/ retreat/ immersion experience.  I was one of the long term volunteers who work as liaisons between the volunteers and the larger Lewis County community.  We spent time working with a non-profit low income construction company, packing food boxes for a local food pantry, sorting clothes at a local clothing pantry, visiting individuals in a local nursing home and senior center, and visiting with people in a center for the mentally and emotionally compromised.  It was a truly transformative experience that gave me a more clearly defined lens through which to view the world and my interactions with it.  During my time, I kept (sometimes more fastidiously than others) a record of my thoughts and reflections of the weeks in blog form.  I chronicled the significant events that happened during my time and how they related to the overall message of The Farm- that simplicity and service are not relegated to service trips and retreats but can be integral parts of everyday life if you allow it.
I wrote one such entry after a week where we welcomed a group from Louisville, KY to The Farm.  Their time happened to coincide with one of the worst snowstorms to hit Lewis County in the last 25 years and they were snowed in on The Farm for a day and a half.  They grew restless as they saw their opportunity to have an impact on Lewis County seemingly get buried under feet of snow.  .  While the situation was not the most ideal, as I reflected on it I realized that the obstacles presented by the situation had provided the girls with a unique opportunity to grow and embrace The Farm.  I wrote:
   “So the girls struggled with being stuck on the Farm, which I think was a good thing. It's those challenging situations in life that promote growth. This was certainly a challenge for the girls as they tried to temper their enthusiasm for service and channel it toward what they were asked to do. But a funny thing happened; some of them began to really take the message of the Farm to heart and began to be in the moment and savor the opportunity to do service, no matter where they did it. The next day, instead of worrying about whether they would be able to get off the Farm, the girls began to throw themselves into the tasks at hand. […] As the girls embraced focusing on the tasks at hand and really made strides in their awareness of the moment, the weather seemed to reflect their progress. Where the day before they had been clouded by their worries concerning the future, this day they were able to clear that out of their minds and see the value in what they were doing. The weather, having been convinced that the girls were learning, relented and broke and allowed the girls to take their new found appreciation of being present into the wider community. Watching the concordant progress of the girls and the storm was really special and an example to me of the presence of God in the week.”
            This particular episode really throws into relief a couple of the most powerful lessons that The Farm taught me.  There are many charisms, or special ministerial gifts, that The Farm nurtures.  Chief among these are the concepts of being present and serving where you are needed.  Following in the footsteps of Jesus, the Farm looks to invert the most familiar paradigms of modern society.  Whereas the so-called “real world” is continuously obsessed with what comes next and where we are going, The Farm asks us to stay here in this moment and be present to those we encounter.  We ask volunteers to sacrifice cell phones, television, and even make-up in an effort to get them to get rid of those distractions which so often prevent us from truly connecting with others.  Where the “real world” judges the worth of acts based on their scale, The Farm emphasizes that it’s often the small things that we do that have the greatest impact.  During their week, the volunteers see just how meaningful just listening to someone can be and how significant their simple presence can be to those they serve.  We often introduced volunteers to the week by saying that while they had chosen to serve; they could not always choose how they serve.  Many of them, understandably, have designs that they are going to rebuild the county single-handed.  But often, where we think we are needed and where we are actually needed are two very different places.  The whole idea of what is service is turned on its head.  This topsy-turvy world view can be disorienting when one first encounters it and can take some adjustment.  This is exactly what these girls experienced when they came down to The Farm. 
            Likewise, the experience was valuable to me at the time as it showed me the true joy and peace that comes with accepting the ideas of The Farm.  I could see, firsthand, a living example of the struggle to accept the idea that service doesn’t always involve grandiose gestures or hard physical labor.  The call to service requires a response and not a dictation.  To truly answer the call we have to set our ego aside and be willing to take up the task, regardless of what that entails.  Being able to see this struggle played out over and over again by the groups was a real boon to my perspective during my time at Glenmary.  I could see just how difficult it was for people of all types to be able to let go and accept their role.  The reward was being able to see what happened after they allowed themselves to serve wherever they were needed.  In the case of this particular group, I could see the transformation happen before my eyes as they suddenly abdicated their control and trusted that what they were doing was really service.  In other words, they had found a true purpose.  Once they did that, they could truly live in the moment, no longer burdened by worries about what was to come next.  There was a sense of acceptance and peace that came with this realization.  As a long term volunteer, it was an invaluable lesson.  It was easy to look forward to the next day, the next task, or the next group.  You could easily slip into a mindset where you counted success by the number of food boxes you packed, the amount of firewood you chopped or the insulation you could install.  But seeing the groups struggle and eventually triumph over that mentality gave me the inspiration to do the same.          
Looking back at it now, those lessons of serving where you are needed and being present are the ones I hoped (and needed) to bring back with me after my time at The Farm the most.  As I have incorporated them into my life (albeit slowly) I have found just how powerful they can be and the value they have in the face of today’s hustle and bustle.  Remembering that you serve where you are needed is a much needed lesson in humility.  I spent time in Kentucky building houses, packing food boxes, and repairing fences.  But I also spent time chasing down renegade cows, spreading manure, and bathing dogs.  Each task, as an act of service was as valuable as any other.  I did not always get to choose what job I got to do but was instead a willing worker.  I had to realize that I often do not dictate the terms.  Service does not take place on my time.  I had to take myself out of the equation.  It’s not an easy thing to do, but one that is essential to truly performing service.  Because once I got rid of any sort of ego, all that was left was the concern to do something for others.   
Being able to experience ministry of presence during my time as a volunteer opened up a whole new world when it came to service.  The idea that sitting and talking with someone or playing cards with them or singing to them can be forms of service is really very empowering.  I recall fondly, afternoons at the behavioral health center playing Canasta with the women or helping a client put together a puzzle.  I am also reminded of time spent with nursing home patients, playing Yahtzee or just sitting and listening to them talk about their family and friends.  The small things that we do really do have an impact, something I was blessed to experience everyday on The Farm
Leaving the cocoon of service, however, was a sobering experience.  The Farm was a place where service was a byword and all the distractions of the world were put on hold so we could see the big picture so clearly.  But the world outside was not so forgiving.  I recall going home for Christmas four months into my tenure as a Farm Manager.  For the first few days, I held the tenets of The Farm as best I could.  But try as I might, old habits crept back in and I began to retreat back into the presence-killing technology that was seemingly everywhere.  It was a frustrating experience to say the least.  I had been a full time volunteer for four months, had none of those lessons I thought I had learned sunk in?  My mom said she could see a change but when I pressed her, all she came up with was that I “seemed calmer”.  This was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the kind of sea change I was expecting.  It seemed as if any progress I made at The Farm would inevitably be choked and stunted by the hectic pace of the “real world”.  But during the rest of my time at The Farm and afterward, I formed a new perspective on growth.  As I began to do more Ministry of Presence and saw the real impact that simply being there for someone could have and the power of small things, I began to think about the impact on myself.  If day in and day out I saw the effect that small gestures or acts had on others, it stood to reason that they have a similar effect on me.  So instead of being frustrated and discouraged by the lack of large scale transformation, I could be encouraged by those little things I noticed that were changing about myself.  I had learned the power of small things so I could appreciate the progress that was signaled by small changes.  In the same way, I no longer balked at the task of trying to simply pick up and transplant my entire Farm experience onto my outside life.  To attempt to do so would be futile.  Instead, I worked to incorporate small gestures and changes into my life.  My appreciation of these little things allowed me to reevaluate where I stood and what I could do.
The incredible result of these lessons is an exciting worldview where service is possible at any point and time.  Letting go and realizing that I don’t dictate the terms of service means that I can be ready to serve whenever I am needed.  Being aware of the impact of small acts and the power of presence means that I can take the willingness to serve into every interaction I have with others.  Fr. Larry, who was there during my 13 months, once said that as a priest he felt like he didn’t particularly do much.  He just looked at every day as an opportunity to meet people.  So that’s what he did.  He would go to the supermarket, to the local diner, and to the various churches, hoping to meet someone.  And when he did, he would seize the opportunity to be a living example of Faith to that person.  I can’t help but feel that The Farm showed me that this is exactly what it means to do service on a daily basis.  Every encounter we have with people is an opportunity to do service.  Every conversation turns into a real chance to connect on a deeper level and be present to someone who needs it.  Those opportunities don’t always happen at our convenience but our job isn’t to worry about whether it’s convenient.  Our job is to serve.

As I reflect, I realize what a profound gift The Farm gave me.  It showed me that service can be performed anywhere and at any time.  It is an incredibly liberating thought.  Service transcends physical ability, location, mental capacity, or occupation.  Someone working a 9 to 5 job in an office has the same capacity to do service as someone doing volunteer work in some country abroad.  I have been given the gift of having my eyes opened to a new sense of the world, where opportunities to serve are limited only by the number of people I meet.         

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