Serve Denver: Imperfection


I’ve always had a tendency to be overly dramatic. In fact when I was a kid, my parents occasionally called me Sarah Bernhardt when I threw a fit. (Sidenote: for years I thought they were talking about Sandra Bernhard, which didn’t really make any sense. Google eventually straightened me out.) 

I suppose you could say I’ve always been the sort of person who feels the weight of injustice in earnest. 

And because I spent some of my most formative years in Boulder, I tend to carry some guilt about the ways I fail to fight injustice. I don’t always buy local, I don’t eat only organic, and the one time my brother and I attempted “displacing ourselves” by sleeping in a cardboard box overnight in a show of solidarity with Ugandan child soldiers, we gave up a few hours after it got dark and went out for pizza.

So I’m definitely not a perfect example of what it means to serve something bigger than myself.

The good news is that imperfection does not preclude serving something bigger than myself. I’ve been learning recently that really all it takes is deciding, then showing up.

Since July, Dann and I have helped serve dinner once a month at Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street shelter. Before we went the first time, I had no idea that they serve three meals a day, 365 days a year, to anyone who shows up in need of a meal. It’s a well-oiled machine, and it’s a pretty incredible thing to witness. I'd like to think that my motivation in going to help out is purely selfless, but like I said, I’m not perfect.

The last time we were there, I overheard one of the diners talking about why those of us who were there as volunteers would choose to do what we were doing. He said “It looks good on a resumé. That’s why they’re here.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to walk over and interrupt and tell him he was wrong. But a part of me also knew he was right. Certainly we were all there because, on some level, we wanted the feeling of having done something good. We wanted that experience for ourselves.

Once Dann and I were in the car on our way to Taco Bell (it’s tradition now) before heading home, I asked if he’d heard what the man said and told him how deeply it saddened me. In my truly dramatic nature, I told him I struggled with feeling like we were volunteering so that we would feel good about ourselves. 

And in his truly pragmatic nature, he said: “What’s wrong with feeling good about ourselves?” to which I didn’t have a good reply. Because nothing, right? There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about myself. I know that it’s not the only reason I go there to help. I know that I have a deep-seated desire to seek the peace of my city, and I know that Denver Rescue Mission needs volunteers to show up and help in order to do what they do every day. And if it comes with a sense that I'm doing the right thing, how could it be wrong? 

Now let me be clear that there is always, at the very least, a hint of sorrow in the service. It can be deeply sad to hear stories of the circumstances and choices that led a person to life on the street. I believe that by experiencing the sorrow and the sadness, I enter into service the way Jesus asks me to - not because it makes me feel good about myself, but because it allows me to share in the fellowship of his suffering. The good news here is that his request of us all is simply to care for one another, wherever we are, however we can.  

I've had this quote from Brennan Manning posted next to my desk since my first year of teaching, when I was spending all day every day in a room full of 8th graders:

Where the Compassionate One is, there will his servants be. Whether in Times Square, Juarez, Rodéo Drive, middle-class suburbia, an alcoholic rehab center, or a room full of 8th graders, the Word stands: “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers or sisters, you did it for me.” 

So the moral of this story is that I’m not perfect. But also that it's okay that my motivation to serve isn't perfect, that there is one who sees my attempts as perfect, and offers me peace.  

During the month of December, I'm teaming up with Denver Rescue Mission and a bunch of other people who write on The Internet to #servedenver. This can certainly be a busy time of year, but we'd love for you to join us from wherever you are, however you can.