By JANICE SIX
It was a Tuesday afternoon and I had ventured across the street to First Central Presbyterian Church’s Food Pantry. After greeting the volunteers, who were busy sacking groceries in the back room, I made my way to the lobby and spotted a vacant chair by the window. After a little while, a young woman came and sat in the last available chair, which happened to be right beside me. We struck up a conversation and at one point she mentioned that she was no longer able to work. She missed working. We talked some about how she spent her time, then after a long pause, she said, “Bingo just doesn’t cut it.”
I had suspected as much but she now confirmed it. She was a sharp woman and this one conversation led to more. Most of our conversations seemed to always include a discussion of the need for meaningful work or the frustration of being given menial tasks just as a means of keeping everyone busy. My new friend was no different from me. She, too, yearned to make a difference, so I suggested she do what I and many of my friends do: Volunteer. This is when I became keenly aware of the invisible barrier separating those who give and those who receive.
She shared that in an attempt to “give back,” she responded to a plea for volunteers that was posted in one of the places she often turned to for assistance. During an interview with the volunteer coordinator, she happened to express her appreciation for the help she had received from time to time when unexpected expenses left her running short. Immediately the coordinator blurted out, “You can’t volunteer here.” Surprised, my friend asked why not and the coordinator explained that because she received services she wasn’t allowed to volunteer. My friend was not only caught off guard by this rejection but humiliated. She explained, “I just wanted to give back,” adding, “What sense does this make?”
Sadly, it makes a great deal of sense to those who maintain a dualistic worldview. The way they see it, there are two kinds of people: The “haves” who give and the “have-nots” who receive. No way can a person be both. My friend’s story embarrassed me even though I had nothing to do with the incident. I tried to imagine being cast into the category of “have-nots,” and having to ask for the basic necessities, or being told you don’t qualify as a volunteer, which translates: You have nothing to give.
I’m pretty sure that those of us who read books on compassion fatigue and how to say no, have yet to understand serving as the gift it is. My friend’s story prompts a series of questions: What would happen if recipients were invited to the other side of the invisible barrier—the serving side? How many would welcome the opportunity? What if charitable services focused on creating opportunities for recipients to serve as well as receive? How might the services offered be affected by including recipients at the decision-making table?
Granted there may be organizations that regularly welcome recipients’ willingness to volunteer and seek their suggestions and insights when making decisions that directly affect the people being served. These barrier-breaking experiences need to be shared–especially with skeptics, who insist on separating the givers from the receivers. Surely, the more we intentionally work side-by-side with the people we serve, the more likely we’ll be able to see that we all have something to offer and we all have needs that only others can fulfill. I’m convinced that when we see ourselves and others in the same light, the invisible barrier that divides givers and receivers will give way to mutual respect—a necessary disposition for building healthy relationships and a strong community.
Janice Six is associate pastor of First Central Presbyterian Church