Yes, Volunteering Does Matter, And Here's Why
Before I joined the staff at Hope for New York, I was a volunteer. I signed up to serve breakfast on Mondays at St. Paul’s House, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen. I chose that opportunity because it took place every Monday morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. I had tried a few other volunteer options, but nothing ever stuck. There was always an event, a party, a trip, or a nap competing for my time, and I just couldn’t get myself to commit to regularly serving—to keep showing up. But I wanted to commit. And I knew there would be few activities competing for my attention on Mondays at 7 a.m.
I started volunteering and, a few weeks later, someone from HFNY recruited me to be a Volunteer Team Leader. I was in, I loved it! At the time, I was working at a financial services company, so starting my weeks at St. Paul’s House was like a breath of fresh air. I heard the gospel, sang, and served. Each week. I was so encouraged. Over time, I made friends with some of the clients. Some of them were new every week, but others were regulars. I got to build, and be part of, a community just because I went back consistently.
Making Unexpected Connections
There was an older guy from Poland named Joseph who had trouble speaking English. He would always show me a tattoo of Mary and Baby Jesus on his forearm, point to himself, and say “And Joseph." We would both laugh. He would then mime prayer hands and gesture to heaven, telling me that he prayed to Jesus. And I would say, “Me too!” Joseph came almost every Monday. After a few weeks of not seeing him, one of the staff members said that he had passed away.
Joseph's passing felt so anticlimactic. My relationship with him had been sincere, but it seemed like an insignificant blip in the grand scheme of my life. I was sad, but it felt almost presumptuous to mourn because we didn't know each other deeply. Plus, there were so many other guests. Every Monday, I met new people seeking shelter, food, and warmth. The struggles of my neighbors felt overwhelming.
As the weather turned cold, I could see how necessary the St. Paul’s House ministry was to its community. Many guests spent nights sleeping outdoors on frozen concrete, so a warm, welcoming room and a hot meal grew more necessary as the temperature continued dropping.
One cold February morning, many of the guests shuffling in were understandably downcast. You could see the discouragement on their faces. But one man who filed in looked different—he was beaming! I said, “Good morning! You look like you’re having a good day!” He replied, “I just became a father. My girlfriend had a baby last night—a daughter!” “Congratulations!” I replied. I helped him get breakfast to go, and he happily went on his way.
I kept coming back to St. Paul’s House every week, but I didn't see the man again for a long time. And over time, my commitment started waning. I would skip a week here or there, and my joy in serving grew less intense. I felt like nothing was happening, and I wasn’t sure if I was making a difference.
The Fathers Who Remind Us to Serve
One Monday morning after Father's Day, my alarm went off at 6 a.m. This was one of those days when getting up was a real battle. I laid in my bed and thought about skipping St. Paul’s House and sleeping for another two hours instead. It was tempting, but I had already missed serving the week before. Reluctantly, I pulled off my covers and started to get ready. I felt good about doing the right thing, but my good feelings quickly dissipated when I arrived at St. Paul's House and saw that a youth group from Georgia had shown up to volunteer, too. Instead of the usual two or three volunteers, there were now a dozen teenagers running around, serving meals, leading worship, and talking to guests. I grumbled to myself and didn't feel needed, but I tried to greet the remaining guests who were trickling in.
About ten minutes later, the new father I had met back in February walked through the door. He looked different. He wasn’t cheerful and he looked thinner and rougher, like he had been sleeping outside for a while. I could see the sadness in him. He asked me for breakfast to go. I started to get his food ready, but I couldn't remember his name. So I said, “Hey, I remember you. You just had a baby. Happy Father’s Day!”
He looked up and cracked open a smile on his sullen face. He thanked me and said that he had only gotten to meet his daughter once. He had split up with her mother, so he had no place to stay and had run out of money. Still, he was smiling while sharing what his baby looked like and how he hoped to see her again. He found joy in being acknowledged as a father by me, a stranger, in the basement of St. Paul’s House. I handed him his meal and said I hoped to see him again...but I never did. I still think about and pray for him.
Meeting (and Finding) the One True Father
As a volunteer, it’s easy to get bogged down with the existentialism of serving. Am I making a difference? Does it matter if I show up? Am I really impacting homelessness? How am I forging a lifelong relationship with someone who's living a different life? If yes, how will the relationship define our lives and deeply sanctify us both?
I can't answer these questions, except to say that volunteering does matter—it matters because God sees your heart when you serve. Even if I didn’t attend Joseph’s funeral, my friendship with him was real. Even if I may never know if the new dad got to see his daughter again, I got to show him God’s love by affirming him as a father when he needed the encouragement. These interactions weren’t grand or glamorous, but they were real and eternally valuable. And they didn’t happen during my first time at St. Paul's House. They happened after months of showing up. That’s the hard thing about volunteering—we know it’s good and valuable to our faith, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
Friend, if you are a current volunteer and your commitment is waning, I understand you and I encourage you not to give up. Instead, lean in. If you are someone who's thinking about volunteering for the first time, just remember that it’s ok if you don’t feel a fireworks-worthy sense of accomplishment. Just commit and keep showing up consistently because, I promise you, God (our one true Father) will meet you there.
Tory Crowley is the Manager of Mobilization at Hope for New York.
Photos by Brittany Buongiorno