People of faith often feel called upon to be of service.
Volunteering for a social issue they feel passionate about is a popular way to put faith in action.
As both a volunteer and volunteer manager myself I have learned a key to being of service is to bring skills, but also leave behind a know-it-all attitude.
This simple rule has come to me this summer as I have left my community in Brooklyn to work at Doorways, a multi-faith AIDS Service organization in St. Louis that provides housing assistance to those who need it living with HIV.
My first weekend I tabled at Pride events.
Like many cities, St. Louis has two Prides, a big commercial spectacle that includes a parade with sponsored floats, and a smaller one that is more community minded. On the Saturday of Pride, I volunteered at the smaller one.
A trio of women came to the Doorways table, looked at the swag we had to offer and asked what we do. Kyleah, the current Volunteer Associate, explained how we connect people living with HIV who need assistance with housing. The trio cocked their heads and in unison let out: “Aaaaah”, a beat shy of finishing their note with “Mennnnnnnn”.
You would think we were talking puppies that just recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The next day I volunteered downtown, at the commercial Pride. At one of the hottest points of the day a young man—buzzed by the day’s festivities—came up to the booth and spun the wheel to win a prize. In making conversation he referred to all people who access services at Doorways as gay.
In both circumstances I bit my tongue, remembering I was not in my city and I was volunteering. I was not just representing myself, but also an organization that has been around for twenty-six years doing ground breaking and needed work.
In the face of the three women and their, “well aren’t you so brave and wonderful to work in AIDS” response, I watched as Kyleah—the pro that she is—charge forward by getting into a few of the nuances of Doorways’ work, weaving in examples of how self sufficiency and agency among the people Doorways works with is key. As I saw it, she pushed back against the idea of Doorways as a “charity” for the “needy” without actually pushing.
She welcomed them into a broader understanding of the organization.
I had the opportunity to practice Kyleah’s technique the next day with the man who thought all Doorways clients are gay. As the words came out of his mouth I was reminded that I live in a bubble where many people I know don’t conflate gay and AIDS.
Often, because they are straight or bisexual men with HIV; or women (cis and trans) with HIV; or genderqueer people with HIV; or because their Mom, their uncle, their lover has HIV and they do not identify as gay. Or because life has afforded them other opportunities to know different.
But the man in front of me lived outside of my bubble, in a world where maybe HIV is too often relegated to the past, or not discussed at all. Or for all I knew he was a gay man living with HIV and the only other people he knew with HIV were other gay men.
So I practiced then, what I am preaching now in this essay. I did not default to outrage.
I put aside my desire to correct. Instead we had a conversation. He shared that he had been mentored years earlier by a Doorways volunteer. They had come to the office, where he remembers the presence of many gay men.
We talked about mentorship, who Doorways serves and how we wish people’s understandings of HIV would change with the times. I was able to communicate that HIV does not just impact gay men, and he walked away with a pair of Doorways sunglasses, and a chance to remember some positive experiences he had with the organization.
As people of faith we can often feel strong in our conviction. It is good to be passionate, speak our minds, call out injustice, be unruly, disrupt business as usual, and not worry about making others comfortable. We never need to bear witness idly to injustice.
At the same time, it is good to consider how we are being called upon to be of service.
At the end of August I will be leaving St. Louis. Doorways will still be here. The relationships I build over the summer will be what remain of my time. While I would love everyone to understand and care about HIV the way I do, that is my job as an activist, not necessarily as a volunteer.
Too often we think of volunteering as charity work, taking on ideals expressed in Isaiah 58:10, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”
Instead, I am suggesting, we can think of it more in light of Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
When I volunteer I am exercising my faith in a power bigger than myself.
I am saying that “man” alone cannot fix it all, but maybe together we can make things better.
Photo via flickr user Sham Hardy