Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Three Lessons I have Learned from the Salvation Army

For two and a half years until this past December, it was my honour and joy to work part-time at the Salvation Army in Cranbrook.

Originally, I sought and found the job out of necessity; I needed some “secular” employment to supplement my salary as the priest of St. Aidan’s. As the months and now years have passed, however, I have seen in retrospect the hand of God tracing His usual glorious design in my life. What was a desperate bid to make ends meet I now see as an opportunity to rediscover the essentials of following Christ through my love for my neighbour.

My Salvation Army job is relatively easy to describe. My official title was “Community Ministry worker,” and I solved problems. If you were fleeing an abusive relationship and had left all your belongings behind, I provided you with clothes, furniture, and household items. If you were homeless and the shelters were closed, I provided tents and sleeping bags. If you were on a limited food budget and your Food Bank allocation had run out, I provided emergency hampers. If you were having legal troubles and needed a consultation, I referred you to a pro bono lawyer. And so on.

If at this point you are tempted to conjure softly-lit scenes involving sentimental music and possibly a halo, let me enlightenment you right now. I worked 14 hours a week at a reasonable hourly rate, and during that time, I did what is required of me, no less and not much more. Now I am no longer in that office, someone else is, doing the same job as well (or better) than I did it.

That being said, this job was a real education for me, by which I mean it has taught me some painful and difficult but ultimately valuable spiritual lessons. I will share the three that stand out for me.

Lesson #1: Serve without expectations. If you work long enough in a place like the Salvation Army, whether as a volunteer or as an employee, you soon discover that people often go through cycles, especially if addiction is involved. Recovery and relapse follow each other in a seemingly endless procession, and only after long periods of time do some begin to demonstrate anything like progress.

Why people change for the better is a mystery—God working in ways we cannot perceive. One thing is certain: people like me who doled out clothing vouchers and food hampers are not primarily responsible.

If you serve the poor in some capacity once a year around Christmas by say, helping with the Christmas Kettles (and yes, that is a hint to sign up as a volunteer this year), it’s easy to miss this important truth. And if you choose to serve regularly, the frustration of our human tendency to repeat the same mistakes again and again can lead you to disillusion, despair, or worse yet, indifference.

The real trick lies in ridding ourselves of expectations. Too often we serve the poor and needy with the expectation that we are actually going to help or improve them. In reality, we discover that only God can help and “improve” others, and then only in His own time and manner. Our task is simply to do what He asks us to do for those in need, just because He asked us to do it, and leave the changing of hearts and minds up to the only One who can accomplish such changes.

Lesson #2: Recognize Jesus in everyone. One of the Fathers of the Church, Maximos the Confessor, once said, “The poor man is God.” Behind this is the Eastern Orthodox understanding that when God united human nature to Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ, He made it possible for us to meet and serve Him whenever we encounter humanity in the person of our neighbour.

Often, our neighbour has something to offer us in return for our service: friendship, money, psychological affirmation, emotional security, and so on. The ‘poor man,’ however, has nothing to offer. When we love and serve someone in utter need, we do so purely out of obedience to God. In that sense, Maximos is correct: the ‘poor man’ is God in a way the ‘rich man’ is not, because the needy more fully reveal God’s presence to us than those who can reward our service.

As the Community Ministry worker at the Salvation Army, I received some recompense for my service. Believe me when I say, however, there were many times when the service far exceeded the rather modest compensation … And it was during those times I learned to 'recognize Jesus in everyone,’ to treat the needs of the person in front of me as if God Himself was asking for a food hamper or a clothing voucher or some advocacy with the Ministry of Social Services. In the end, there is no other (or better) reason for serving the poor.

Lesson #3: Seek times of sanctuary. The Salvation Army can be a very busy place and at times, the busyness can threaten to overflow into every spare minute of a day. As a part-time staff member, I was nowhere near as busy as those in charge, but as a priest, I am all too aware of just how all consuming this work can become.

In this regard, I have learned to be grateful for the opportunities for sanctuary afforded by the Orthodox Christian tradition: the daily Matins and Vespers services, the practice of quiet prayer known as Hesychia (‘the Way of Inner Stillness’). In addition, I have come to cherish my day off every week, during which I spend time with my wife and children, resting and recharging.

I have learned that just as important as the giving of one time, energy and resources to others, is the taking of time to drink from the wellspring of life, in God and in those whom He has given us as a support and a help. Without my work at the Salvation Army, I may have learned that lesson the hard way, or not learned it at all. But I am discovering as I go along that my God has a way of acting in unexpected and surprising ways for my joy and salvation, and for that, I am grateful.

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