Back in the late 1990s, a group of high school students would serve dinner at the Nashville Union Mission one night per week. The ringleader of our little group was a guy named Eric. He and his sister organized our volunteer work for the Mission and made sure we made it downtown on time each week no matter how late Coach kept us in the pool. Always wet, sometimes smelling of chlorine, and usually having forgotten our coats, we would pile into Mariah’s red Jeep and drive north for 30 minutes. There we would dish food, hand out day-past-date milk cartons, and then clean the kitchen and dining room.
The first time I volunteered, few of the people in line would look at me; but after I returned the following week, they started to acknowledge me. I started to learn faces and a handful of names. This was some of the first regular, sustained community service in which I ever participated, and it taught me the importance of building relationships with those whom you serve.
As I get older and take on more responsibilities with work and family, it has become harder to build personal relationships in my community. David and I try to keep quarters available for anyone walking by who needs bus fare, and we do service projects for the homeless and hungry through our church. Excepting one lady “of the night”–whose favorite part of the day was greeting Copper every morning–I do not know the people we are hoping to help. I worry that I am not doing enough, so I too often overload my calendar with Meal Trains and sewing projects in what are probably attempts to tamp down my guilt over not knowing my “neighbors” well enough to love them.
I’ve long supposed that the only people who don’t struggle with such feelings of inadequacy are professional servants–pastors, doctors, social workers, etc. Take Eric, for example. He and his wife are missionary doctors in Africa, raising a lovely family while saving lives and training future doctors. But in his new book, Promises in the Dark: Walking with Those in Need without Losing Heart, he reveals many of the same worries and doubts that I have:
I believe much of my tendency to overwork is a manifestation of seeking control and a lack of trust that, in the end, God–not I–will bring about real transformation in this broken world (79).
Eric tells stories of healing and death, frustration and inadequacy, joy and unimaginable sorrow:
The blinding reality is that suffering is everywhere. The world is filled with trouble, disease, and loss….Since moving to Africa, there’s probably no single theme that has felt so urgent to me. No other problem has felt so pressing: if I can’t find some way to at least think about all the suffering around me, then I won’t last long here (109).
In his stories of language barriers, infrastructure failures, cultural conflicts, and human suffering, I see parallels to many of our Western struggles. At the root of all suffering is evil, and that is what humans struggle against every day. We cannot do enough or love enough to get rid of the evil–that’s God’s job.
I am encouraged that on the other side of the world, Christians who have devoted their lives and livelihoods to serving God and loving His people share many of my own frustrations. Eric reminds me that God wants to use all of us to reconcile His people to Himself from wherever we are, be it a hospital in Africa, a sidewalk in Chattanooga, or even the parking lot of Bridgestone Arena (where our beloved Union Mission once stood).