Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Meaning of Volunteer Service

Almost a year ago I was asked to write an article about volunteer service for the Bolivian Salesian magazine. It's not a masterpiece, but it explains a little something about the meaning of our lifestyle. Also, it was written and published in Spanish, and actually sounds a lot better in the original, which is kind of a nice feeling as a non-native Spanish speaker.

Sacrifice, Love, and Example in the Life of a Volunteer

The Meaning of Sacrifice

When God calls us to a missionary experience, no matter where or for how long, he asks of us a sacrifice. It may be something as simple as our time or abilities, but there is always something we must offer to Him. It is a way of asking us, "What are you prepared to surrender to me? Your time, your abilities? Your friendships, your work, your culture, your language, your lifestyle, or your way of understanding the world? Do you believe that this calling is worth more than all this?" The missioner answers "yes" and, like the man who sells everything to buy the land where he discovers a great treasure (Matthew 13: 44-46), sacrifices everything necessary to go where God waits to reveal his grace.

Two years ago, I arrived in Bolivia for the first time to begin a year of service with the Salesian Lay Missioners. When I boarded the plane in the United States I was excited, and sure that I was about to begin a  beautiful experience. But, looking through the windows of the car as we drove from the airport to the orphanage, "Hogar María Auxiliadora," I could only wonder  "what have I gotten myself into?" Nothing looked like my homeland. I had no idea how I would function, how I would settle in to a place so different. I felt confused and lost and I knew I had an entire year ahead of me. In that moment I wanted to say to the driver "turn around! I'm going back to the airport!" Thanks be to God, I couldn't speak enough Spanish to get in the way of His plans like that.

Throughout the following months, I learned to trust that God would return to me everything that I had left behind to follow Him. When I was alone, the sisters, the girls in the orphanage, and the community accompanied me. When I couldn't speak the language, I learned to give and receive the kind of love that cannot be expressed in words. When I missed my home culture, I began to see the beauty of the Bolivian culture. When I felt useless and small against the material and spiritual needs of the girls, I finally recognized God's providence. I thought that I had lost everything by coming here, but in reality I had found the great treasure that is God's love.

The Meaning of Love

This same love lies at the center of the calling that each of us receives. The presence of each volunteer is a testament to this love. We know that the poor, the abandoned, and the afflicted are loved by God, because God calls us to surrender ourselves for them, following the example of Christ. But it is a great mistake to think that my mission, as a volunteer, is to bring the love of God to Bolivia or to this orphanage. The love of God is already present in every place and in every person. My mission, then, is to find it, rejoice in it, and reflect it back to others. Is there any task more beautiful than this?

The labor of each volunteer, no matter what it is, is above all a gift to the actual volunteer. In my  case, I came to offer a year of service to the girls of Hogar María Auxiliadora. But, as the months went on, I learned that each day I received more than I could ever give. At the end of the year, I renewed my contract, then ended that year by doing so once again. The decision to stay had nothing to do with what I can offer to this place, but seemed rather a matter of what God was revealing to me through these girls. In this way, the love that I encountered was not just God's love for these girls, but God's love for me reflected through this calling.

The Meaning of Example

The experience of volunteer service, in many cases, makes no sense to the world. It is a special calling that confuses others. When I presented the idea of committing to a year of service, I found many friends and family members who saw it as a year of frivolous wandering. Even today people ask me "so when are you coming back home to start your life?" or "when are you going to finish this little adventure and come back to reality?" In a world where the value of each hour is measured in dollars and each experience is only good for impressing others, the confusion of others towards volunteers is notable. In the midst of these doubts and criticisms, we find our second mission: preaching through our lives.

The work I realize is a service to the girls in the orphanage, but it's also an important testimony about Christian life. Each day I spend here, despite the difficulties and challenges, I am communicating something important to my family and friends. When they see me, growing in spirit and happiness for the life of service I live here, I hope they realize that my joy does not come from the superficial things of this world. It can't come from material wealth because I receive no pay. It can't come from prestige because I simply work alongside the rest. According to them, dizzied by the infinite desires of this world, the love of God cannot be enough to satisfy us. But the joy and peace we posses as God's servants is proof to the contrary.

I encourage you to explore the call of God in your own life, and discover for yourselves the meaning of sacrifice, love, and your example in this world.


  1. THANK YOU for finally posting in your blog again!
    And I absolutely <3 the article!!

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