In one area of my mission, there was a woman who lived in a small apartment with her adult son who was bedridden by severe cerebral palsy. The missionaries would go visit them often; we would chat with her son and the elders would give him a shave or help change his bedding. Their tiny apartment was filthy. I would wear my oldest clothes for visits and my companion and I would plan time to stop at home afterwards in order to change because the lingering odors were overpowering. Every few months the missionaries would bring bleach and clean the accumulated layers of cat pee and cigarette smoke from the walls and floor, leaving the place sparkling clean. Things would then gradually deteriorate until newer missionaries would decide that they needed a service project and would clean the place again. I really don’t know why this woman didn’t clean her house, but I think she appreciated the missionaries doing it for her. Once she took us out to eat at a restaurant; she told us she couldn’t feed us because her kitchen was unusable. I’d seen it, and I knew she spoke truth, but I did wonder how she managed to eat every day.
I have a friend who runs a small non-profit foundation that supports schools in rural Africa. They raise money in the United States, which is then used to buy school supplies, pay school fees for orphans, and build better school buildings. She tells me that one challenge of fund-raising is that many people feel uncomfortable donating money. They want to give used school supplies or clothes, or even sometimes new ones. My friend has gotten very good at explaining that they are actually able to help more people by raising cash because they do not have to pay to ship anything overseas. They are also able to help the local economy by buying school supplies from African producers, and they can get textbooks that match the local country’s educational standards. As good as Americans feel about giving their old clothes to orphans, providing cash to pay local seamstresses to make them school uniforms is a better choice for many reasons.
A few weeks ago I realized that my lawn had become severely overgrown. Spring came early this year, and I am a busy single parent and somewhat neglectful in my yard-care habits. Unfortunately my street is filled with neighbors who really care about the appearance of their front yards, and I know some people were wishing I would just go ahead and mow the lawn. Two weeks ago when I had some free time on a Saturday night, I decided to go to the movie theater to see The Hunger Games instead of doing yard work. When I came home my grass was a lot shorter. I felt embarrassed because, while I am certainly physically capable of cutting my own grass, I just didn’t make it a priority that day. So a few days ago I dragged the mower out from the garage and tackled the front yard. After a little while I realized that mowing the lawn really isn’t very much fun at all. My hands and arms ached and sweat trickled down my back. Then I remembered that I have several neighbors with teenage children who need summer jobs; maybe I can actually provide some service to my neighbors instead of having them serve me. Sounds like a win-win to me.
How can we better match our desires to serve with people’s real needs? How can we graciously receive service offered, even when it is not what we need or want? Do you like mowing the lawn or would you rather provide that as a service opportunity for someone else?