“What do you like about going to Reconciliation Services and helping serve the Friday night meal?” I asked my nine-year-old son.
“I like making people smile,” he answered.
Who can resist smiling at a cute little boy with glasses working the room with his lemonade pitcher in hand? Some of the guests at RS have even offered him a few coins or a small tip, to which he always refuses, gratefully.
I have been taking my three sons to serve the Friday night meal for many years. When my oldest son was a baby—he’s 14 now—I would wear him in a carrier on my back so I could help out on Friday nights at RS.
Now, each of my boys fall into their familiar duties when we arrive to serve. My oldest son likes to run out trays full of plates of food. My middle son bounces between back-of-house food prep and serving plates to guests. And then there is my youngest, my nine-year-old, too small to carry the trays, too distracted to prep the meals, too social to stay in the back.
In the midst of these bustling Friday night gatherings, my nine-year-old serves with joy and zeal. He fills up pitchers of lemonade as he walks around the first floor dining area. He offers refills. He smiles. And often the mood of the room begins to change.
RS offers an alternative to the “soup kitchen” model that moves folks through a line as they collect their meal on a tray. Guests arrive for the Friday night meal and find a place to sit around common tables with other friends and neighbors from the community. As they are sitting and enjoying conversation, volunteers serve them dinner. No lines, no balancing trays, but a simple meal served in a dignified way by volunteers who care, like my kids.
I am finding that cultivating a zeal for service and a love of neighbor bears fruit with consistent and persistent work. For me, that means I often take my kids along with me to serve. I can talk about serving others and caring for my neighbor, but I also need to show them what that might look like and they need to have opportunities to practice it.
I don’t shelter my kids from the challenges of serving others. Sometimes the bus stop outside the RS front door is thick with tension, angry voices, sad faces, and desperate pleas. Sometimes it is a welcoming hub of smiles and hellos. We don’t always know what is waiting when we set out, but if we hesitated because of fear or discomfort, we would also miss the joy. It is good to gather items to give, but the lessons that are born from the giving of oneself, cannot be underestimated. Holding the arm of an elderly homeless man while he takes his seat, seeing the faces of young kids come through the door to have dinner, and hearing the strange murmurings of a mentally ill young woman, remind us that there are real people on the other end of our giving and that our time and attention are our most treasured gifts.
I try not to squelch their joy and zeal. One time my boys wanted to bring their Halloween candy to RS to hand out at the Friday night meal. It was hard to resist the urge to talk them out of doling out their artificial, sugary treats, but I did. As they shared their candy, people smiled and remarked about how generous they were to give up their candy. It may have just been candy, but it was their candy and they wanted to give it away. Why would I say NO to them giving their own stuff away? All of my boys play the piano, each to a varying degree of ability and complexity. Whether it is a clunky attempt at Christmas carols or the opening theme to Star Wars, each time they sit at the old, out-of-tune piano on the first floor of RS they offer up their talents, their joy, for everyone present. I need to allow them the freedom to be joyful and to offer whatever they have to give.
I want to cultivate a love for people, not merely a habit of serving people. If we merely approach acts of service as part of a checklist for our holiday generosity or a way of fulfilling community service hours for school or club recognition, then we miss out on the deep well of relationship and community that comes from regular involvement in serving others. When I point my children back to the people they are surrounded by, the faces they see each time they are there, I can help them create stronger connections with the people they are serving, not merely the act of serving. They begin putting a name with a face and giving high fives when they enter the building. They become regular participants in the lives of others, not distant benefactors supporting a generic cause.
So whether it’s passing along Halloween treats, playing an off-beat and out-of-tune carol, or walking through the room filling up glasses of lemonade, let loose the joy and zeal of the youth. We have much to learn from them and they have much to offer.
Article by Jodi Mathews