A teacher of mine used to say that the why question is very important because it tells you a lot about yourself. June is a busy month at Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) as staff continue to recruit and prepare for the end of one cohort’s year and beginning of another cohort’s year in a few short months. It’s also a busy season for outgoing Volunteers as they think about finishing up their year and what comes next. Incoming Volunteers are busy with summer activities and for many, but not all, thinking about life after graduation. But, the question of why folks consider doing a service year is a good question to think about in this season.
Why Luther Place Chose Service
One of the ways of asking why you did LVC is to examine why LVC was started and correspondingly what the people who started LVC hoped that LVCers would get out of their year of service. Luther Place Memorial Church, in Washington, DC, launched LVC the summer of 1979 with a group of short-term Volunteers who served at N Street Village. N Street was a shelter for homeless women, another ministry started by Luther Place to serve the community that the church found itself in.
The 1970s saw an increased amount of homelessness around the nation and the neighborhood around Luther Place increasingly hosted homeless individuals from around the country. Members of the congregation, and the senior pastor John Steinbruck, increasingly felt compelled to serve these individuals. Their hearts grew heavier with a desire that would birth the organization that became N Street Village.
Lutheran Volunteer Corps was started to help with a staffing issue. Namely, Luther Place needed more people to help with N Street Village. However, members of Luther Place quickly realized that LVC could also act as a formative experience for young adults. Just as Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Mennonite Voluntary Service were providing a year of service and spiritual exploration for young adults, Luther Place realized that a year of service based in the Lutheran church could open the eyes of young adults to human suffering in ways that they probably hadn’t experienced prior.
So, why did members of Luther Place start N Street Village? They saw the suffering in the community that they were located in, it stirred their hearts because their faith told them that it was wrong, and they did something about it. Members of the congregation also recognized that their own lives had something to contribute to the needs of those less fortunate in their communities.
Why I Chose Service
When I think back to why I did LVC, it had become a combination of both needing something to do after I graduated from college and a firm commitment to giving back. My own upbringing is rife with the many ways that I have been privileged and blessed by my family, various communities, and my faith tradition. As I concluded my college years I recognized that those four years had really been all about me. Sure I had met deadlines for professors that seemed like I was at the behest of someone else, but upon reflection college was all about me.
In my classes at St. Olaf College, I was always asked to develop my own thinking to discover how I thought about different things. I was presented with countless opportunities to enrich myself and prepare for my post-college future. Meetings with the career center and vocational retreats all encouraged me to think about what it was that I wanted to do with my “one beautiful life”. Even the panoply of cafeteria choices provided at every meal urged me to think about myself. After four years, I was tired of just thinking about just myself and increasingly knew that I needed to give back. My service year taught me something that college never could – being present in the joys and challenges of living in community taught me lessons about myself that were inalienable from my connectedness to the community of my LVC year.
As You Have Chosen Service
There are a lot of reasons why people choose a year of service, but I want to reflect on two that appear above.
The first is that for many of us, our faith tradition encourages us to earnestly wrestle with how we treat those who are less fortunate than us. Luther Place bore witness to that because of their Lutheran tradition and we should celebrate that LVC’s Lutheran roots for exactly that reason. The lesson that I learned from my service year is that Jesus Christ didn’t just give things to people. Instead he walked, talked, wept, and partied with people. My year of service taught me to walk alongside people and not just to give to them. I was surprised by the ways that those people gave more back to me than I ever could have imagined.
The second reason is that in serving you learn so much about yourself that college never teaches you. College is always an introspective time, which is good, but it is not the end of our journeys. To fully develop who you are socially demands living in situations where deep relationships stretch and pull you. My house community was deeply challenging, and because of that, I learned so much about humanity and myself. The lessons that I have learned have made me a better candidate for jobs, a better soon-to-be spouse, and a better member of the many communities that I am part of.
For outgoing Volunteers – I know that this time of the year is hectic. These next couple of months will be busy and stressful, but you’ll get through them. I hope you take the time to appreciate all that you’ve learned about yourself and the world around you.
For incoming Volunteers – enjoy this summer because there is hard work ahead, but it will be good work. In this coming year you will learn so much about yourself and your worldview will change. If I have one piece of advice to offer, which I learned too late for my own house community, it is this word of wisdom adapted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The person who enters community seeking to build community invariably destroys community; the person who enters community seeking to love people in that community invariably creates community.“
I pray that whatever the reasons are that you will serve, or did serve, you remember to love the person deeply for who they are and never for what you think they should be.
Community Engagement Manager
Alum, Washington D.C ‘16-‘17