Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Are we making a difference?

About a week ago it was “Make a Difference Day” around the U.S, the national day of service. People are encouraged to join together; invest time and talent in their communities. This is a great idea. People are encouraged to engage, to step outside of themselves, link arms with others and spend a few hours “making a difference” in their community. This day has the potential to foster new friendships and partnerships for ongoing volunteer engagement. It has the potential to really “make a difference” in the lives of both the one served and the one being served. But I’m wondering, after observing activities in my community, exactly how is that potential realized?

Here’s what I observed. About 400 volunteers filled the neighborhood around my office, which is downtown in a low-income, plighted neighborhood. Most residents are renters. Most homes and apartments are run down and unkempt. The day started at the local elementary school, where a new section of sidewalk is going to be put in by volunteers in a few weeks (on “Serve Fresno Day”). Our mayor was there to kick off the festivities. She asked the approximately 50 children how many go to this school. Just a few raised their hands. Then the children present, almost all from north, suburban schools, got to decorate tiles that would become part of the new sidewalk at the urban neighborhood school. Throughout the day volunteers in bright green shirts cleaned up our streets, pulled weeds, participated in some needed repair projects. For local residents, from what I saw and heard from participants, it was pretty much business as usual for a Saturday (except I did notice a few more yard sales in front yards).

So after observing some of these activities today first hand in my community, I was left asking myself some unsettling questions. What do residents think when people they’ve never met converge on their neighborhood to clean up trash and pull weeds they’ve been walking past for a year? And what happens inside the heart of a volunteer after they spend hours cleaning up the streets for people who are wandering by, watching them work?

I still have more questions than answers, but when I reflect on the kind of volunteer service that I am sure DOES make a difference, a few things do come to mind:
• It is service that does things WITH rather than FOR people
• It is service that allows people to interact and begin relationships
• It is service that is ongoing, will be sustained or continued by the recipient when the volunteer service provider is gone
• It is service that has the potential to keep growing. There is a way for the friendships that have been sparked, between volunteer and agency or client and volunteer, to continue, to grow, to multiply and become more relationships, more volunteer hour, and deeper commitment to community and kingdom.
• Finally, it is service that is disturbing and unsettling (I’ll write about this in my next blog post)

For volunteer service to “make a difference,” in the church, local community or on the international mission field, what characteristics do you think must be present?


  1. I think that the day that you describe is a service that is done FOR those who volunteer. What I mean by this is that those of us who don't live in that area, but drive by and see its condition feel ashamed that our city looks this way, so we do things like this to fix it up so WE WILL FEEL BETTER ABOUT HOW IT LOOKS and ourselves. The dilema is that if the people who live and work there don't take pride in it, it will soon fall back to it's previous contition. To really make a difference in how these areas look and are kept for the long term, the people themselves should be engaged in the work, THEY need to care about it first. My question is HOW DO WE MAKE THEM CARE ABOUT IT? I really don't have the answer to this, but I think that from what we have learned in Swaziland, one of the compononts is surely having a relationship with those you serve, spending at least a little time showing them that it is THEM you care about, not just the way their street looks to passers by.

  2. Great insights! I will share this with our Life groups as we get ready for a couple serve days. With not for... Huge, simply and brilliantly huge.

  3. I think Sandi really got it right when she says that we do these things so we will feel better how it looks. My personal feeling is that people partake in this type of action not because they care so much about the people, but because they feel good about themselves afterwards. Hopefully a few will return afterwards to get more involved with the people. But that's the tough part, where you have to try and find out what the situation is in the lives of these people and why they do not want to take care of the gardens and sidewalks. The easy part is to fo it for them. The difficult part is to get them to work together.

  4. I agree that often these kind of projects are of interest to people who want to do things feel better about themselves. Isn’t that (unfortunately) true with many short term missions? But I don’t place the blame entirely on the volunteer. I think we as leaders own the responsibility to intentionally structure volunteer experiences that will bless AND respect AND engage the one serving and the one served, both long-term local and church ministry and mission experiences. But this is much, much more work, both before and after, than just finding a bunch of tasks for people to do in a blighted neighborhood. The people who came to work in my community a few weeks back were just taking on the assignments given to them.

    However, I need to remind myself that the Holy Spirit can grab someone’s heart whether we have done anything in advance to prepare the ministry soil.