Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Secular Service Opportunities

When I wanted service opportunities to share with friends, I used to search particularly for secular organizations. They would feel uncomfortable, I reasoned, going to a “church thing”. (Some of them said as much themselves.)

But it’s HARD to find good secular one-day service opportunities!

[Disclaimer: everything I’m saying here is totally unscientific and based purely on my experience, so I might be way wrong about it.]

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are tons of great non-profits out there that do fabulous work, from the old standards like the Peace Corps to new, ultra-focused groups like Free the Slaves and BuildOn (formerly known as Building with Books). But the vast majority of one-day service opportunities are with religiously affiliated organizations.

The big exceptions –the big secular one-day volunteer opportunities for secular service – are food banks and Habitat for Humanity. Both of which are fabulous programs, and definitely play an important role in raising up the lowly, or however you want to think of it.

But one thing they have in common: neither Habitat nor food banks get volunteers into the grit of daily life of the people they’re helping. In fact, volunteers never even see these people. Instead they get a kind of sanitized volunteer experience – the knowledge that they were helpful and even visible results, but no interaction with the people who need that help.

Obviously this is a HUGE generalization, and we could list many exceptions. I think Food Not Bombs is the most widespread of them – like all those church groups, they prepare and serve a meal to whomever’s hungry, and you can go help them out for just one day if you want. (Incidentally, if you are not familiar with Food Not Bombs, it’s worth your time to read about it.) But I think if you talk to most people about their community service experience, it has been either with religious groups, or involved a long commitment, or it has been that kind of sanitized volunteer experience.

Some more thoughts on entering into the grit of the daily life of the less fortunate:
  • Most jail ministries / services are run by religious groups.
  • Food banks tend to be secular, but who raises food for them? Put another way, when was the last time someone asked you to donate food to the poor, other than a holiday can drive?
  • Most meals ministries (free meals for the homeless) are run by religious organizations (there is one Food Not Bombs in San Francisco, but many church hall meals).
Why is this? Is it about churches/temples/mosques having a big enough network to have access to a lot of one-time volunteers? Does it have to do with religious leaders (or religious writings) giving people a sense that they should be helping the less fortunate? Is an artifact of the way help-structures were built up in this country?

Regardless, if you are an atheist/agnostic/non-religious person, I want to encourage you to seek out service opportunities that put you into the grit of daily life of the people you are trying to help, even if it’s through a religious organization. In fact, maybe especially if it is. Religious people aren’t total weirdos, and it’s a good way for you to get to know some, so you can disabuse yourself of that notion. (If you don’t have that notion, then what’s the problem with working alongside a bunch of them?)

RESOURCES (not comprehensive – please add your favorites!)

One-time service opportunities
One-time service opportunities in San Francisco
  • Curry Without Worry (http://www.currywithoutworry.org/)
  • Martin de Porres House (http://www.martindeporres.org/) -- named after a St. and modeled after the Catholic Worker movement, but not Catholic-run
Totally awesome service/missional organizations
  • Narika -- offers information, support, and advocacy for South Asian women suffering domestic abuse
  • Boys Hope Girls Hope -- a live-in program for urban kids that offers a safe home environment, including meals, mentoring, HW help, etc – very focused on getting them through high school into college
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters -- mentoring young people
  • Mission Graduates -- SF only – mentoring and tutoring for kids living in San Francisco’s Mission District

1 comment:

  1. > Is an artifact of the way help-structures were built up in this country?

    This is a large part of it, I think. This weekend I'll try to find some references in some of my books from when I was at Simmons.