How the Story of Jacob Riis Inspired Me to Serve

Bowery Mission

Shortly after I moved to New York, I met up with a former youth group leader from my church back home. He was visiting the city for a short trip, but something he said during our brief meeting greatly impacted me.

He told me the story of Jacob Riis—a Danish immigrant who documented the desperate living conditions of New York’s immigrants and working class during the 1800s. His work resulted in regulation changes and improvements to tenement living. My friend concluded his story by saying this:

“Remember, even a simple Christian and immigrant can impact the lives of many if he wants to.”

The story of Jacob Riis became very dear to me, not only because I, too, moved to New York from Denmark, but also because I realized how selfish, self-centered, and career-focused a life I was leading.

The Sunday after meeting with this friend, I read about opportunities to serve with Hope for New York in the Redeemer Connect. I knew I couldn’t ignore them. I decided I would volunteer at The Bowery Mission’s Wednesday meal service.

After my first service there, I knew it was the place where God wanted me to be.

While the concept of serving others wasn’t foreign to me—I was raised in a Christian family with parents and grandparents who faithfully served in and through the church—my busy schedule always got in the way of making a priority out of serving others.

But as I served at the Mission, I met a number of volunteers who had similarly busy schedules, yet still managed to prioritize service. As they encouraged me, I slowly started to make room in my agenda for The Bowery Mission.

Now, I serve as a HFNY Volunteer Team Leader with The Bowery Mission. Not only do I directly serve people in need, but I’m also able to assist the Mission and my fellow volunteers. As a Team Leader, I became more aware of the challenges that The Bowery Mission experiences, and how we can be of better assistance to them. I also get to help volunteers make their service more enjoyable.

And I’ve learned an important lesson: Service is not about me. It’s about God! But God can use me only if I humbly let Him lead me.

Certainly, there are times I feel discouraged. When volunteers don’t show up as promised or don’t arrive on time. When efforts aren’t appreciated. When people aren’t satisfied. When they’re grumpy or complaining or angry. But through volunteering, I have learned that there are so many wonderful people in New York who genuinely want to help others. And that has been inspiring. So has the way many of the people in need bear their difficulties in faith and with smiles on their faces. Their attitudes are both humbling and encouraging. Serving others has a way of bringing enormous blessing and joy to you.

I have to walk half-an-hour from The Bowery Mission to the PATH station to get home. After each time I serve, even when I’m tired, it feels like I fly all the way to the station. I feel God’s presence and His joy.


Interested in becoming a HFNY Volunteer Team Leader? You can find more information here.