On a sunny afternoon in New York City, I walk down 5th Avenue in East Harlem, headed home after a day of volunteering with the Salvation Army when a man outside of a pizza shop grabs my attention.
“Could you spare a dollar so I can buy a slice?” he says, in what feels like a confident and practiced tone.
I shift from side to side, paralyzed momentarily by the choices in front of me. I could easily give him the money. It would mean foregoing my daily ritual of stopping off for a latte on my way home, but if it truly would help someone, that would be no trouble. As I ponder the choice, my head starts to swim with Facebook posts and dozens of articles that I’ve read suggesting that this very action might be hurting more than helping.
But what problems would I be contributing to by offering this man my money? How did he get on the streets in the first place? How many other people had fallen into this exact scheme already today? How would he actually spend my dollar?
Questions fog up my head, I smile politely and keep on walking with my money in my pocket, unsure of how else to respond.
The situation I found myself in that day was far from unique. In a world with limitless access to choices, we often find ourselves too overwhelmed to make a choice (or afraid of doing the wrong thing) and we choose to make no choice at all.
Our fear of doing the wrong thing stops us from doing anything, which precludes us from serving anyone at all.
From years of leading and participating in short-term mission trips (a concentrated time of intentionally serving others), I think there are a few steps that can help us begin to actively serve others like Jesus.
We can serve others well when we actively decide to take on the role of a servant. This seems obvious, but missing this step can lead to doing more harm than good. When we study the life of Jesus, we find countless examples where he took on the role of the servant. From choosing to wash the feet of his disciples to the very decision of coming to earth and living as an ordinary human, Christ continually humbled himself for the sake of others and switched places with people in the lowliest of positions.
It’s easy to unconsciously view ourselves as the saviors of those that we serve. But, to truly model service after Jesus, we really have to believe that, in God’s eyes, everyone else in the room is just as important as us. By positioning ourselves in this way, we force ourselves to leave our personal agenda behind and elevate the importance of each person we are serving. Changing our position naturally leads to doing more to dignify those we serve and puts us a lot more in line with the example of Jesus.
It’s easy to assume we know what’s best for others and to simply give them that material thing. But, if we seek to serve others well, the best thing we can do is take the time to get to know people and honor them with a listening ear. If we skip this step, we make it a lot more about the good feeling we get from helping than we do about actually serving someone else.
We believe the simple act of listening is a powerful way to serve.
If we show up to paint a house, build a wheelchair ramp, or put up new drywall after a hurricane, but don't take the time to look into the homeowner's eyes or learn her name, what impact have we really made? There is so much power in being intentional with the way we build relationships. In my experience, while the project is important, sometimes sitting down with someone, sharing coffee, and listening to her story does a lot more than a fresh coat of paint.
When we listen to others, their needs might surprise us. By simply making the statement, “Let me know how I can help,” we’re opening ourselves up to a world of needs, not just the ones that are convenient or fit nicely into the time we’ve allotted to help. This often requires us to drop our own agendas, and it may cause us to serve in ways that stretch us beyond simply where we see ourselves “gifted.”
But the act of caring might not always require big, dramatic action. Caring for another person might mean going against what’s on the planned agenda or going back to the store for a specific shade of paint a homeowner has her heart set on. It might mean grabbing the rubber gloves and cleaning out moldy cupboards, or letting the mess be for now and sharing a cup of coffee. Caring for someone might mean spotting them a dollar for a slice of pizza, or dropping everything and sharing a slice of pizza on the sidewalk in the middle of New York City.
When we’ve listened to the full magnitude of someone’s brokenness, it can often be incredibly discouraging. We all have a natural inclination to want to either fix everything or create distance from what we can’t fix. But when we seek to serve others in light of how Christ served us, we can take comfort in knowing we are rarely the whole solution, that we may be one small part of a much grander plan, and that’s okay.
To serve others well, we need to have faith that we are ultimately serving someone greater.
God is the one who will bring true change to people's lives and circumstances. It is our job to love people where they’re at. But this is not an excuse to wait for someone else to step in and help. The realization that we’re not the whole solution should give us the freedom to share our time and attention without fear.
When I think about this idea, I think about the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It would have been easy for the Samaritan man to look at the problems of his enemy as too great or too complicated to get involved—he was traveling for business and, I imagine, he had plenty of other places he could be or things vying for his attention. Instead, he did what he could and found a place for the man to stay and people who could help him. The Samaritan man did not create peace between the two communities or fix crime rates along the road where the man was attacked, but he saw a need he was able to address and he did something about it. He actively took on the problems of his enemy, simply because they were both the same in God’s eyes. His example of going the extra mile, even when it’s inconvenient, is something we still can still choose to live by.
At EM, we follow what we call the Model for Mutual Influence. When we allow ourselves to be influenced and changed by the people we seek to serve, we create avenues for mutual respect and, ultimately, mutual change. In the same way, allowing yourself to be served (accepting a meal or coffee, or letting someone pray for you) is often an incredibly meaningful way to serve someone else. It levels the playing field and communicates to the person you’re serving that they have value, that they matter.
Even Jesus (the actual savior of the world) allowed others to serve him when it was done for the right reasons. He may have quieted Martha’s frets when she was too caught up in the act of serving rather than the heart of it, but he also defended a woman who spent a year’s wages on perfume to wash his feet. This defense wasn’t because he viewed himself as requiring of such a gift, but rather because this very act of service would mark this woman’s life and leave a legacy for all of eternity.
When I think about what it really means to live out a life of service, I wish I would have eaten a slice of pizza with the man in Harlem that day. I would have done it not because I was this man’s only hope for a meal, but rather because it’s what I believe Jesus would have done. The more time we spend examining what it means to serve others well, it comes down to allowing our lives to be interrupted. Serving others means making space for their existence and seeing them as valuable and worthy to serve and be served, simply because God views them that way.
When we’re struggling to make sense of how we could ever live out a life of service to others, I hope we’ll remember the words of Jesus:
“Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
- Matthew 10:39
You must have a group size of at least 6 members to join this trip. Please view the Small Team trips or call our Servicing Department for more options at 888-475-6414.
For most trips, you must have a group size of at least 6 members. Please view the Small Teams tab on each Community page or call our Servicing Department for more options at 888-475-6414.