Over the last few months, I’ve been busy organizing a group of sixteen young adults to take a service trip to Project Mexico. We recently got back, and since then I’ve been reflecting on the importance of service - both international and domestic - and how it has changed my life. For me, this trip was one of reunion and fulfillment, and served as an expression of gratitude for what God has done in my life over the last decade.
Eleven years ago, I went on an alternative spring break (Real Break) trip through Orthodox Christian Fellowship. I was a freshman and excited for my first service trip - working on a home in Tijuana, Mexico through Project Mexico and Saint Innocent Orphanage. I couldn’t have predicted how much that trip would change me. In Mexico, I witnessed poverty like I hadn’t seen before: homes the size of my neighbor’s shed, a community outhouse, children playing frisbee over downed power lines, poor infrastructure, etc.
Maybe this was my Damascus moment - like Saint Paul whom God had to strike blind before he changed the direction of his life.
Service - and Project Mexico more specifically - became the catalyst of change in both my professional and spiritual life. I switched my major from Chemistry to International Affairs and Spanish. I served with AmeriCorps VISTA for a year in Philadelphia and then went to seminary. Going on a week-long international service trip to Mexico propelled me in the direction of domestic service and ultimately full-time ministry in the Orthodox Church.
But what is it about service that is so life changing? Why is service so important for Orthodox Christians?
1. It fosters relationships
It isn’t enough for me to know about someone, I need to actually take the action of getting to know him. Before I took my first trip to Mexico, poverty was a concept and impoverished people were not much more than a category. Afterwards, I had names and faces, relationships instead of ideas. I knew the relative poverty of my own family, but I knew little of the poverty of others.
Last month, our group of young adults went to Mexico as a collection of friends and strangers. We came back a united group, as people who had served together, prayed together and who had a common experience as a community. What I’ve found is that when two or more people serve someone together, they grow close to one another, too. A similar thing happens as friends or spouses develop their relationship with God; they wind up closer as a result.
Service is so transformative to individuals because they break out of their isolation and become members of a community. We experience a moment of connection - to God and neighbor - that gives life to all of our relationships. Service changes our lives because it opens our hearts and helps give us a new perspective on our lives.
2. It’s a reflection of the Liturgy
The focal point and climax of the Liturgy is the Eucharist. All of our prayer and worship, our offering of ourselves and one another, our listening to the Scripture readings and homily, lead up to this moment when God offers back to us our gift to Him (bread and wine) as His Body and Blood. And as a corporate work as a community, the Liturgy is an act of service to God. Eucharist is our thanksgiving, our action of gratitude for the work and presence of Christ in our lives.
But when we leave the Liturgy, how much does our week resemble this action of gratitude? Do we commit ourselves and others to God during the week? Service to our neighbor is an important way of giving thanks to God as we help bear one another’s burdens. As the Liturgy helps to cultivate within us the realization that God is the source of our lives - and not our own labor or our success - service reminds us to be grateful instead of selfish.
There’s a certain mystery that happens when we give to others in the name of Christ. He gives to us His Body and His Blood and is never depleted. And when we give to others in service to them, we leave with hearts brimming over. We walk away with more than we gave.
The Orthodox Church sets up service as a vital part of our spiritual lives. Almsgiving and service to those in need are built in as part of our fasting periods and are highlighted in the lives of great saints such as Saint Basil the Great and Saint John Chrysostom. Service cultivates relationships both with God and our neighbor, and it is an act of gratitude for what God has already done for us.
How has service changed your life? How can you reach out to serve your local community?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.
Photo Credit: Sam Williams - Project Mexico 2017 Virginia team