The Ego of the Volunteer

Before reading on into this post I ask you to recognize how this story comes from a very vulnerable part of my own life. I have done my very best to be very honest, open, and tactful. I believe this is an issue that has come up in my own life, perhaps in yours too, or maybe these are just points to ponder.

Upon getting into Detroit, MI in August of 2012, I immediately began searching for a service opportunity outside of The NOAH Project (my placement site in Detroit) where I could get to know another organization, get to know the people I am working with better, and just have a place where I can get to know others who are working with the homeless. So the search was on for a dinner program that I could easily get involved with volunteering my time and that I could get to directly from work via bike. It took me until late September of 2012 to find such a place, but finally after hearing about this church from several of my friends who come through NOAH, and actually referring some to this church for a hot meal and a warm bed, I decided to check it out.

I will just use the church’s initials MBK, I am not sure it matters about being confidential with the church, but just in case. Anyway, I have been working with MBK for quite sometime now, and I think it has given me a fantastic avenue to see familiar faces in another setting, do what I am told, and see another way of service. It was at MBK on Thursday night of this past week that I had some painful realizations.

See at MBK I never know who is going to show up to volunteer, sometimes there is an army of 40 excited volunteers, and sometimes there are 3 wiling workers. Anyway, this was one of those days where I walk in with nearly 35 people present to volunteer. I kept busy cleaning up after people and serving the food when asked, but it was in some downtime between when everyone had been served and seconds were about to be passed out when I sat down for a moment.

While sitting in that chair overlooking the gym where people were eating I saw several people that I had already talked to, that I would say that I know fairly well through N.O.A.H. Some of these men and women in front of me I am striving to learn more about, get to know even better and learn from. This is when a stinking feeling slowly snuck its way into my head.

I realize that as much as I feel volunteering is a humbling, eye opening, and overall a “good” experience, in this situation there was a sense of pride that crept sneakily into the “service”. I strive to build relationships with the people that I am giving a meal to, yet I do not sit down and eat with my friend. It was in this moment where I recognized a still very present barrier. While I was willing to step into the same building, work with, talk to, joke with, learn from and build community with many of these people I was still secretly adamant about keeping a small buffer built to separate us. This barrier was that of being a volunteer and the ego involved.

The ego that I recognized, whispered “I am giving my time, you’re welcome” or “my ‘daily bread’ doesn’t depend on this place.” While I never, ever dreamt of saying this to anyone I believe this is a consistent sentiment held by those who volunteer in different settings and it is divisive to the two parties interacting. This ego ruins mutuality. This ego gives sustaining breath to differing power dynamics and socioeconomic status’ keeping them alive and well. Worst of all, we even see people gaining a certain amount of pride from this power differential, when someone volunteering simply does not see those being served as an equal. This hurts.

It hurts to realize that if we are not constantly vigilant we can fall prey to perpetuating this sentiment. Instead how do we keep the mindset that each party has something to gain from the interaction of volunteering? One party may bring 14 pans of lasagna, while the other may come to the table with a couple plastic bags of clothes, each still arrives with a story to share, lessons to be learned, a common humanity, and need for relationship. Maybe if I can keep this fact in mind this ego barrier can slowly become smaller and smaller (and possibly begin to disappear).

I must finish with a nod to reality. I understand that there may never be a time where I can completely eradicate the barriers between myself and the homeless that I work with, but if there is ever an opportunity to make this differential smaller then I hope to work towards that. I feel that as we make our differences in experience, beliefs and status between each other smaller, it then leaves more room for us to get to know one another on a deeper more authentic level. Greg Boyle (a Jesuit Priest in Los Angeles) comments in Tattoos on the Heart

“the truest measure of compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

Maybe this idea of kinship is more along the lines of community, maybe even the community that we see “love your neighbor” preached as a central tenet.

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Brandon Powell600757_4926650529568_78606497_n
N.O.A.H. Project, Detroit Michigan
US-2 class 2012
Advance # 3021515

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