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November 1, 2015

Volunteering: I didn't think I was making a difference

This was considered a "nicer" shelter, because guests had space between mats.
When I volunteered at the homeless shelter in Minneapolis, I often became overwhelmed. There was so much need and so much pain, and I was only one person. I’m sure I sounded like a broken record, telling my friend Jen that it was too draining on me and I didn’t think I could do it anymore. Every night we saw the same people and it seemed like very few of them wanted to escape homelessness.

She was the voice of reason, reminding me that I was focused on me when I should be focused on them. At times the feeling that I couldn’t make a real difference was so debilitating that I wanted to turn away from volunteering all together. Maybe focus instead on something I could control. 

I see now that it was a defining moment for me. I didn’t turn away because I couldn’t. The pull was too strong and it was in those moments - trying to coordinate how we would find volunteers to feed 50 men and women every night – that I saw the hand of God most clearly. There was not one night in that shelter’s first year that those men and women went without dinner.


I can’t even tell you how many times Jen and I marveled at the miracles: We had no one scheduled for dinner and received a call that D’Amico and Sons had leftovers from a catering party that afternoon and the leftovers just so happened to be enough to feed 50 people; the church group that was looking for a place to volunteer and just so happened to have a group of 8 ready to go the night we needed them; the delivery of Subway sandwiches “just because” on a night that our dinner group had canceled.

It has taken me years to learn that my role as a volunteer is not to save the world or even to save one person. My role is simply to do what I am called to do and leave the divine intervention – the miracles – to God. I just need to show up and trust that he’s got it covered.

The homeless shelter at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis – now in its FIFTH year – opens again for the season Nov. 1. It’s an “overflow” shelter of a larger Salvation Army operation, open November-April, specifically to shelter guests from the cold. This morning I prayed for their opening, and specifically for a flood of volunteers this season. Then I got curious and visited their volunteer page to see how many dinner crews were signed up already for November. Here’s what I found: November is booked solid. Beyond that, nearly every night of the week has a volunteer group scheduled to serve meals through April 2016. THROUGH April!

That first year was a challenge, to say the least, but every single thing done by every single volunteer during that first year helped lay the foundation on which the shelter has been built and continues to thrive. I got word recently that they are even in talks about becoming a year-round shelter! Only God...

We don’t always see the fruits of our labors, but it has to be enough to trust that we’re where God needs us to be. But first we have to be there, show up, even when it seems like our presence couldn’t possibly make a meaningful impact in the world.

Even when... “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” – Mother Teresa

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