In search of service: July 22, 2013


Interesting things can happen in train cars, like the one Bjorn and I ride in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

A big part of our year abroad is doing acts of service. However, we aren’t looking to be affiliated with any one organization. Our modus operandi has been to find projects once we land in our target city. We get a lay of the land and let the search grow from there — a real “boots on the ground” approach. While this strategy gives us the freedom to choose projects that truly interest us and more flexibility in our time schedules, it also puts the onus on us to find these projects. And while it’s true that people need help all over the world, sometimes it’s not that easy to find the opportunities.

Sometimes, you have to go places you don’t expect to find them.

In Bangkok, Thailand, Bjorn and I went to the Swedish embassy and asked the people there if they knew of any volunteer opportunities. That led to our first gig with the Church of Sweden:visiting orphans at the Thai Red Cross Children’s Home. That project led to contact with the LifeCenter Church,  which organizes visits to the Immigrant Detention Center to help reunite the families inside.

Sometimes, you stumble upon them.

Flores was the first neighborhood we lived in while in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While walking around the area, we came upon the Basilica de San Jose de Flores; it was only two blocks from our apartment. Bjorn walked in, asked a church worker if they had any service opportunities and badda boom badda bing!—we found ourselves serving the homeless and needy as part of a soup kitchen crew.

And sometimes… well, sometimes this happens:

The first Saturday after we arrived in Berlin, Germany, we went to the New Life Chapel (Bjorn and I are Seventh-Day Adventists.) That Sabbath, the church had several visitors from different countries. One of them happened to be C. She and I struck up a conversation afterward. She was interested in Bjorn and I’s year and search for service projects. We talked about stuff like who really needs help, what kind of help they actually need and how attempts at service can sometimes seem to end badly. Afterward, she gave me her email and we parted ways. I dropped her a note later.

I got much, more more in return.

C wrote that she had been returning to her hostel Saturday night on the U-Bahn (the Berlin subway) when a young man, probably no older than 25, got on the train. He was filthy, couldn’t speak much English, and he smelled so bad that everyone left the train car. Well, almost everyone — C remained.

He begged her for money. They ended up talking and he showed her a wound on his leg that looked infected and was rotting. She asked him why he didn’t go to the hospital. He didn’t answer; he just started crying.

The train stopped and he got off. She ended up giving him money before the door closed. C wrote, “ As the train left I saw this poor wretched young man standing there in total despair.”

She cried all the way back to her hostel. She couldn’t get him out of her mind. So this kind-hearted, courageous woman decided to go back to find him and take him to a hospital. Her zeal affected her roommate who decided to go with her and they searched two subway stations, thinking that he couldn’t have gotten very far.

But they could not find him.

She was so upset that when she got back to her hostel, the man at the reception desk of the Plus Berlin could tell something was wrong. She told him what happened. He said he knew of a person who volunteers for an organization that helps the homeless and drug-addicted.

C wrote, “I know that you and Bjorn are looking for some volunteer work to make a difference….I thought you may be able to go and find him…..if it isn’t too late already….I fear for him. You could go and talk to the guy at the hostel…he would remember and could tell you the name of the organisation [sic] that that lady works for.

“I just don’t know what else to do….while I was praying for him that is when I was impressed to contact you. This boy is in my head all the time and when I go to bed at night I cry…..

“I don’t know if you can do anything either but maybe.”

Sometimes you are renewed from the warmth of heart and compassion of one person. Sometimes the courageous stepping-outside-the-box of another inspires you to do the same. And sometimes, a charge gets laid on you that trills into your very bones.

I’m going to try, C. I really am.



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