Volunteering at Salvation Army this Summer

Aug 19, 2015

For the last three months, I’ve spent almost every Tuesday morning volunteering at the Salvation Army near downtown St. Paul, preparing and serving breakfast for the homeless and working poor. This has been a wonderful experience that at times has been fun or challenging, and discouraging or inspiring.

It has been wonderful to be involved in handing a plate of food to an average of 300 people every Tuesday.  Yet it has been a challenge to see so many people who are in great need, especially those who come in with small children…

As we hand these people a plate, wish them a good morning and ask about how they are doing, we get a variety of responses, ranging from:

“I’m going great, it’s a beautiful day.  Thank you so much for serving, and God bless you,” to, “About the same as yesterday,” to, ”You don’t want to know.”  But much more often than not, those who receive food show deep and authentic gratitude for the service and kindness that is being extended to them.  I’ve been told, “God bless you” at the Salvation Army this summer countless times.

While the format of these breakfasts makes it hard to have prolonged conversations with the guests, I have had a number of meaningful, sometimes deeply spiritual, conversations with a few individuals as we are cleaning up.  I remember one man who admitted that he had been a thief his whole life, but that day, he had found a wallet at the Dorothy Day Center (an overnight homeless facility) that had 30 credit cards and $3000 in cash.  Instead of pocketing it, he turned it in to the security officer there.  While he recognized that that money would have taken care of him for several weeks, he felt compelled to do the right thing.  He told me this after talking about his broken nose and broken jaw that he received through two separate fights on the street…

There was another man who was telling me about how violent living on the street is.  But, with tears flowing freely from his eyes and down his face, he quoted Bible verse after Bible verse about “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” and how God is protecting him, giving him the strength to make it through each day.

Or there was the authentically joyful reunion I had with a man who I used to play chess with when I volunteered at the Listening House.  This man had a severe stroke several years ago that left him with limited mobility and even greater difficulty speaking.  But he is an excellent chess player, and a jazz music connoisseur.  When we re-met, he told me how much he appreciated my music and wanted to know when the next album is coming out.

The crew of staff and volunteers are a wonderfully eclectic group of people.  There is a man there who volunteers every day since retiring several months ago, who prides himself in being the designated soup-server.  There is the man who has worked there for 10 years and also runs a suicide prevention organization.  There is the man who has come in twice a week for years, despite a busy work schedule.  There is the staff worker who quietly does the tasks that no one else is particularly eager to do (especially washing the dishes).  And there is the 60-ish year old woman, who is about 4 foot, 10 inches, maybe 100 lbs, English is her second language, and who wears two hearing aids…but the guests there have the utmost respect for her.  She has been there for at least 10 years, serving every day.  She gives devotionals during the morning, and the entire room of 300 guests—many of whom give the appearance that they wouldn’t listen to any authority figure—listen in rapt attention to her message.  You could hear a pin drop.  And they almost always applaud when she is done.  Additionally, just yesterday a fight started to break out between two men.  There was a lot of shouting and pushing, and the situation was rapidly escalating.  This woman rushed to the scene, shouted, “Not in MY house!” grabbed one of the men by the back of his shirt and pulled him out of the room.  This was a scene I will never forget.

I mostly write this so that I can reminisce about my experiences there, but also to close this season of my time there.  With fall classes started soon, it no longer works in my schedule to volunteer here—it’s awfully challenging to be in two places at once!  But I do have some reflections about the implications of what I’ve seen this summer:

The level of influence we have is not dictated by our physical stature, education level or the amount of money we make.  Thinking specifically about the 60-year old woman made me realize how we can do incredible things if we let God work through us.  She did not have an imposing physique and did not give the appearance of being affluent, yet she is drastically improving the lives of hundreds of people every day.  She has very clearly submitted herself to God, who has in turn given her great authority, the ability to speak authentically and persuasively, and has kept her safe through what likely has been many dangerous situations.  Philippians 2:13 reads, “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”

Secondly, I’d encourage everyone to find something they are passionate about and go volunteer!  It admittedly was a challenge to get up early every Tuesday to serve, but I’m so glad that I did.  I met people who have inspired me, witnessed situations that have challenged me, become more aware of the plight of those with mental illness, and experienced and learned about what it is like to work in a commercial kitchen.  And perhaps most importantly, I have always felt closest to God when I’m volunteering regularly.

Thank you Salvation Army, for the work that you are doing to help those that lack basic necessities, and my prayer is for continued blessing over your ministry.

Thank you for those who have read this, and now go out, recognizing the impact God wants you to have on those around you.  He will equip you, motivate you, and increase your influence if you open up to Him and allow him to work in your life.  Matthew 5:16, “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”