When I was fourteen years old, just discovering the “mall bang” and a love for sweater dresses, I stumbled upon another discovery. This one was life-changing, and it happened on what I believed to be an ordinary Sunday.
My family and I loaded our too-large clan into our too-small vehicle and headed off to church. I was in a full-length sweater dress with perfectly styled mall bangs, certain I was setting the world on fire and in search of my long-time crush. But then I noticed a long line of people trailing into the building after service had begun—several busloads of them. Dirty, tired-looking, and forlorn, they poured forth from the vehicles, seemingly without end. Who were they? Where had they come from? Why did my heart betray me in such an odd way, making it difficult to resist the urge to hug them and wash the dirt from their faces?
During the service the pastor announced we’d be holding a special Thanksgiving service for several hundred homeless men, women, and children in the sanctuary that afternoon, and that the church still needed volunteers. I wasn’t sure how I was getting home afterward, but I was certain I was staying.
That afternoon of service changed my life forever. It didn’t end the homelessness of even one individual present that day, but how deeply moved they were by the dignity with which they were treated. Real silverware! An ice sculpture! I sat and held the hand of an older man who wept at the opportunity to eat at a table with an actual fork. He couldn’t recall the last time someone had waited on him.
A man of color, he looked over my hand carved of porcelain and mused, “I’d almost come to believe people didn’t give a darn about us.” The depths of sadness in his eyes enticed me. How could it not? How could this world of people—unseen, uncared for, neglected, and forgotten—have existed without my knowledge? Carefully, he wrapped the scraps of turkey on his plate in the aluminum foil he’d asked me to bring and then tucked them into his pocket. “For later,” he whispered.
That afternoon gave way to Saturdays at a shelter in downtown Chicago and eventually led to a grown woman who today eyes the flowers at the local women’s shelter every time she passes, checking to see how they’ve grown since they were planted.
Each year my husband and I plan vacations, yes. What fun things do we wish to do with our children? What adventures will we embark on? Yet something deeper always calls to me. What service projects will we take part in? How will I teach my children about a hurting world in need of what they can offer? Where will I take them so they can use their gifts for the good of the community, for the sake of mankind?
I want my children to understand the joy found in giving, not only in receiving. I want them to know the beauty of loving a stranger, not so they can say they did, but so they can be the kind of humans who do.
In our community, some organizations give out backpacks filled with food to needy families over the summer. Our children and I can easily donate our time filling these backpacks. Thrift stores support the women’s shelter where each of my children has volunteered, pulling weeds, planting flowers, and playing with the younger children.
Driving home from a store recently, my daughter asked me, “Mommy, don’t you wish everything was free? Then I could have all the toys I wanted.”
“Well, if everything was free, then no one would be hungry or without a home or transportation. I would really love that.”
“That’s your dream, Mommy?”
“That’s my dream.”
I want it to become her dream too. Not by everything becoming free, but by the offering of all that she is. So yes, this year we will play and go on grand adventures, but we’ll also serve. What about your family?
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10 NIV).
Stacey Philpot is wife to Ryan and mother to Hayden, Julie, and Avery. She is a writer, goofball, and avid reader. Stacey has ministered for over 15 years to youth and women in her community in order to equip them to go deeper in Christ. She blogs at aliferepaired.com and chronicallywhole.com.
Photograph © James Sutton, used with permission