Dear Future Volunteer,
During my year of volunteering there were many exciting adventures. For instance, I ran my first half-marathon! I was inspired by some of the other staff at Christ House who actively participate in runs, such as John who ran his eighth marathon shortly after I arrived. Feeling confident in my summer training, I signed up that fall to run a marathon in the spring. Unfortunately, during the winter I sprained my ankle, thus, I reduced my mileage and the race to the half-marathon. What seemed like only a short time later, race day had arrived and I stood at the start line. The best part of the run came at the seven-mile mark, which crossed right in front of Christ House. The patients, staff, and fellow volunteers cheered me on as I passed. Feeling re-energized, I finished the second half of the race with a faster pace and my total time was faster than my goal. Now as I reflect at the end of my time I think there are some lessons that apply from this story to a year of service.
- Learn from others around you.
Just as John inspired me to sign up for something only 1% of the population can say they have accomplished, look to the people who have come before you. Find joy, inspiration, and hope in the progress they have been able to accomplish. For me hearing the story of the founding of Christ House and the struggles faced early in the fight for equitable healthcare for people experiencing homelessness shows that, with God’s grace, anything is possible. The everyday miracles witnessed during your service happen not in isolation but in community. Cherish the opportunity to learn from these relationships.
- Get out and train.
As much as I can read about training schedules, meal preparation, race day rituals and the like, nothing was going to prepare me for the marathon/half-marathon better than running the miles. I experienced a similar feeling when I committed to a year of service. When I was still discerning what to do post-graduation, I felt I had a purpose but lacked specific direction. The experience at Christ House helped me explore my future options and calling. Although to some friends and family members it may seem like an unnecessary delay to the start of your career, I believe that a year of service is an opportunity to “train” for your future. Whether that involves vocational discernment, spiritual growth, a calling to serve, or the many other reasons for committing to a volunteer year – take the time you need to bring your head and heart into alignment. As the author, philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
- There may be stumbles or unexpected turns during your journey.
I did not anticipate spraining my ankle or having to change the marathon to the half marathon. Similarly, there may be challenges and barriers along the way during a year of service. Perhaps you will not get along well with one of your fellow volunteers or a supervisor. Maybe a few weeks or months into service you realize you miss home. Know that these or other vulnerabilities may come up and there is a community of support here to help. Take comfort in the fact that these feelings are common and many of your fellow volunteers can relate. Finally, remember that for every difficult moment there will be moments of pure joy, like a conversation with a patient who has been showing great progress, that will remind you why you are there. In addition, I think feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or even hopeless by the immense complexity of social justice work comes quite easily. For me, believing that the arc of the universe bends towards justice gives me hope that we will realize a brighter future. I would encourage you to not be afraid to bring up these ideas, struggles, or questions within your communities.
- Enjoy the experience.
Lastly, just as I could not believe how quickly the race had come and gone, my year of service has nearly ended. This once in a lifetime experience will be over before you know it. Do not leave having regrets. If you want to have a discussion about confronting racism as a topic for a community night reflection, I say go for it! The challenging conversations ending in hugs, the bonds formed with fellow volunteers, staff, and clients, and the introspective growth are the opportunities you will not forget. With a cheering squad supporting and re-energizing you, I think you will surpass your goals and surprise even yourself with what you are capable of.
Peace and blessings,
Jedidiah Barton served as a yearlong volunteer with Christ House in Washington, D.C. in 2017-2018. He is originally from Brownsville, Wisconsin and is a graduate of Viterbo University.