Of the things that occupy our thoughts, time, and energy, relationships are high on the list. We want to be in meaningful relationships, but they don’t come easily. And at different points of transition — out of college, into a new job, into a new city — the challenge of making and maintaining life-giving relationships is real.
I have witnessed and experienced how the habit of volunteering is a good way to respond to that challenge because it fosters meaningful connections — with others, your deepest self, your community, and God.
Volunteering can introduce you to new friends
Choosing where to volunteer can be an intentional process (even though sometimes we volunteer because we are pulled along by a friend who does not want to go it alone). We have the opportunity to ask, Do I enjoy working with animals and the environment, or people? Do I want to mentor at-risk kids? Do I feel a pull to feed folks without access to homes and healthy meals?
When serving becomes an intentional process, we end up working alongside people who are passionate about the same things that we are, and who desire to do good. Sounds like the start of a beautiful friendship to me.
While we might look for certain kinds of people as potential friends in our usual hangouts, volunteering can introduce us to surprising friends. In the past few months, I’ve made friends at a local food bank with a 60-something retiree named Don. He and I first bonded over helping high schoolers learn how to sort through and bag produce — I appreciated how he was both warm and firm with my 16-year-old students.
Over hours of working with produce and teenagers, Don shared his story with me: his professional success, an accident that led him to rethink life in a St. Ignatius-like way (i.e., sitting in bed for months, starting to reconsider life and God), and his return to his Catholic faith. His story gave me the hope I needed in this moment of my life as I work with high schoolers.
Volunteering often leads us to friendships we would not expect — and therein lies the beauty. We reconsider what has the ability to connect us to others.
Volunteering can improve our relationship with self
While volunteering out of self-interest seems antithetical to the whole idea of service, the positive benefits are hard to ignore.
Volunteering can help us reconnect with parts of ourselves that get left behind in the rush of a regular day. It’s a chance to commit to being in a time and a place where we pause, put away our phones, and engage with other people or a certain task. It’s in that engagement that we can step out of ourselves and have the opportunity to reflect on how we are living and how that impacts others.
Volunteering grows virtue in the most practical of ways. We become more patient in working with question-asking children or a person with a disability who cannot move with dexterity. We become more compassionate and merciful in listening to the stories of people experiencing poverty. We become more prudent with our consumerism and better stewards of our resources when we see massive food waste.
Volunteering is an opportunity to grow into a better version of yourself.
Volunteering can improve your relationship with your community
We all belong to communities, but sometimes our view and experience of them can become pretty small. We go from home to work, out to dinner, to the gym, or a favorite coffee shop. In the routine of life, it is easy to not see the areas of need in our communities.
Volunteering takes us out of our story and opens our life experience to the needs of so many around us. For the high schoolers I work with in Orange County, CA, it is shocking to learn that 301,000 people in Orange County experience food insufficiency each month.
Not too far away from each of us, there are people and communities in need. Take a step to learn about these needs and come to know these people — you’ll find that your habits and life narratives can change into ones that are more just, less judgmental, and more intentional. Service transforms us just as much as it helps others.
Volunteering can improve your relationship with God
A student once told me that volunteering “puts feet on his faith.” Jesus didn’t much like hypocrites, and neither do most of us. To go out and serve individuals and communities who are vulnerable is to do what Jesus did. People came to know Jesus first by His radical service toward them, and then through serving others in His name.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave His friends instructions for how to live after His death and Resurrection — He washed their feet and said, “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:14-15).
In serving others, we not only model Jesus, but also meet Jesus in those we serve. We see Jesus in the joy of children we are mentoring. We are surprised by Jesus in the generosity of the poor. We are inspired by Jesus in the perseverance and beauty of a person with disabilities. We encounter Jesus’ love as we share our lives with those we set out to serve.
If you are looking for a way to encounter God’s love, volunteering is a way to make it real in your life and in the lives of others.