I have come to love servant projects. Not because the work we do is particularly remarkable, or the service given in the end is all that profound. I love servant projects because it’s a space during convention where we have the opportunity to gain an understanding of real issues, real challenges, and the real strengths of our host cities. It’s a space to rub shoulders with local people, to hear short snippets of their stories, and to walk in their environments. It is a time when we’ve been invited by local agencies to join them in their ongoing work in their own communities; this is a sacred trust we’ve been given.
For example, in Pittsburgh, during the 2011 convention, a couple of youth accompanied their group to weed flower beds in a residential neighborhood as part of their servant project. When they needed to use the restroom, the girls were welcomed by their host, Gale, into her home. This break, which subsequently became a short walking tour through the neighborhood, turned into inspiration for the girls as Gale shared the history of the surrounding buildings. Gale’s tour revealed a community’s rich history and her personal passion to reclaim the neighborhood.
It might be easy to see servant projects as a “sacred trust” when we’ve spent the afternoon talking with a woman like Gale, when we’ve spent time playing with children, when we’ve heard stories, or sorted cans at a food bank, but can we also see it in the ordinary work of pulling weeds, picking up trash, or cleaning out horse stalls (really, groups have done this!)? Can we still imagine the people who seek play or respite in this park and joyfully offer our sweat and muscles in appreciation of their community? Can we eagerly learn about the neighborhood in which we find ourselves, and offer a small prayer of blessing for the people we don’t meet?
We serve because we really do want to make a difference in our world, and we want our faith to be active and relevant and meaningful. These are important reasons to participate in servant projects. I value the many notes and e-mails I receive from local agencies after conventions that say how much they appreciate the hard work and wonderful attitudes of the youth that came to serve alongside them for an afternoon. In our attitudes and actions we represent Christ and the church. However, I also hope that when people leave their afternoon of service, they don’t only say, “This is what we did.” I hope they also say, “As I was pulling weeds, I noticed … I learned … I heard … I gained a new perspective … and because I paid attention, my view of this place, and the world, shifted just a bit.”
Arloa Bontrager is the director of the Youth Venture and SOOP programs for Mennonite Mission Network. Each convention, she graciously volunteers her time to build connections with local agencies and coordinate servant projects at convention. We are grateful for Arloa!