This week marked two month’s since I began serving at Old First. And although it has only been a short time, I already feel like I am building relationships with members of the church, other volunteers, and guests on Saturday Mornings.
It is also exciting to see our assumptions about poverty, inequality, and homelessness be challenged by personal interactions.
One assumption that I am finding it important to challenge is just how much those of us who are middle-class expect the people we “serve” to be in a good mood.
This attitude is rampant in middle-class Christians doing service work. Thousands of Christians descend on cities every year to “help” and “serve.” Some of them come to Philadelphia and stay at Old First through our Urban Service Camps.
When we show up, we demand that folks from the communities we are visiting be nice, cheerful, and say thank you at every opportunity. Some groups just want to “do good” and leave it at that; other more progressive churches want homeless folks to “share their stories” so we can “build relationships.” In either case, we can end up demanding that homeless people put on a show of being grateful and open and vulnerable. We demand emotional labor from people who are struggling to survive.
Let’s be clear – I’m not saying that we should stop our Urban Service Camps or the outreach programs that we do (if you haven’t volunteered recently, please send me an email and sign up! …We’re hoping that every Old Firster will volunteer at least once a year in one of our church’s outreach ministries.). Youth groups and college groups and others are needed workers, even if they are frequently the band-aid over the gaping wound that is our society’s abandonment of millions of people to food insecurity, inadequate housing, health problems, incarceration, and death.
I am inviting everyone to think more deeply about how we interact with our guests. Next time you volunteer on a Saturday morning, serve a meal for our shelter guests, or support those in need in some other way, think about what you expect from them? If someone approaches you in a bad mood, think of all the resources you have that allow you to hide your mess (inside a house, inside a supportive family structure, etc.). Think about how the stereotypes of homeless people affect what you expect and how you behave.
See you in church,
John B.. Outreach Minister