Why I Don’t Volunteer at Soup Kitchens

When I was a teenager and even more obnoxious than I am now, if you can believe that, I was obsessed with the poor. Actually, that might be too generous. I was obsessed with what everyone else was doing to help the poor.

Righting wrongs that are none of my business since 1984.

I was born with a violently strong sense of justice1 and raised without much money. Even though we didn’t have much when I was very little, I have distinct memories from childhood of giving to the poor and even volunteering as a family to feed the poor. So I suppose it’s no wonder that with the advent of a more significant allowance came a sense of obligation to help those in need. Which would have been a good thing had I not felt the need to beat people over the head with it.

I distinctly remember sitting in my car after youth group one night sobbing because the people–even the adults–didn’t understand that they had to help the poor. I had even broken it down for them, making it as simple as I could: “If you have two blenders, you should give one away. Nobody needs two blenders.” No, they said, yours might break, and then you’ll need the other one. “Then you can buy another one! Why would you hoard extra things on the off chance that you’ll need them in the future??” But they didn’t care. All I was trying to say was that that they ought to give some of their excess away. But they couldn’t hear it.

In college, I got more extreme. I wouldn’t pay more than $20 for anything but a plane ticket and I judged those who did.2 I didn’t chill out until my wise roommate pointed out to me, “Meg, someone has to minister to the country club.” Oh, I thought, well if it’s wealth for the sake of ministry, I guess that’s okay. But I still brought up the plight of the poor with regularity. After all, as St. Ambrose says, โ€œThe rich man who gives to the poor does not bestow alms but pays a debt.โ€ Giving to the poor, he says, is not optional.

But despite my absolute conviction that all Christians have an obligation to serve the poor, I can’t remember the last time I was in a soup kitchen. Or a food pantry. Or a homeless shelter. Or really any place devoted to serving the poor.

I realized my first year of teaching that for all I was telling people to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, I wasn’t doing a lick of it myself. So I resolved to get more involved, do more, be more available to serve the poor.

First year teaching kind of looks like this–overwhelming chaos that you can’t do anything about. Definitely adding another activity was the way to fix that.

You read that right: I decided during my first year of teaching that I wasn’t doing enough for Christ and his people. Somehow, I thought that 14 hours of ministry a day wasn’t enough. I decided that my weekends shouldn’t be spent recharging3 but doing more.

Praise the Lord, he stepped in and stopped me before I drove myself to a nervous breakdown. And I had to realize, in all humility, that I can’t do it all. I can’t sing in the choir and lector and be an EM–I have to choose.4 I couldn’t be a first-year teacher and spend my weekends at the soup kitchen. At a certain point, I had to recognize where my gifts lay and where God was calling me and let the rest go.

There will always be more good work to be done for the Kingdom, but you don’t have to do it all. What you have to do is the work that the Lord has put before you today. And the beauty of the Body of Christ is that when you put us all together, we do all the work that must be done. Some of us feed the poor directly, others by tithing. Some of us catechize directly, others through the witness of our lives. Some of us are missionaries, others pray for missionaries, take missionaries into their homes, comment on missionaries’ blogs.5

The gift of this messy, beautiful, holy, fallen Church we’re in is that we don’t all have to be elbows or noses or pinky toes.6 At this point in my life, the Lord has called me to evangelize day in and day out. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for slinging hash. But I can’t be holier than the Lord has called me to be–if he wants me on the front lines for faith and working the supply chain for works, I can do that. Insisting on being in the trenches for every cause that matters is just pride–and stupidity.

Which book do I read? I’ll never read them all! My life is so hard!!!

One of the great temptations when you start getting serious about following the Lord is comparison. You start looking at how people around you are serving Christ and you take your eyes off him. But God doesn’t want cookie-cutter Christians! He wants you to be you and to do the particular work he’s given you. And when we look at all the work we’re not doing or the prayers we’re not praying or the books we’re not reading, it’s easy either to get discouraged or burnt-out. If you’re anything like me, the result of comparing yourself to holy people–not prayerfully emulating Saints but analyzing their resumes–is sin.

There is great humility in saying, “I love the poor but God hasn’t called me to that ministry.” You’re acknowledging your limitations and avoiding the Messiah complex that I’m so prone to. If it’s honest, if it’s truly a result of prayer and prudence, if you’re giving of yourself through some other work or ministry or relationship, it’s a blessing to be able to say no.

My friends, the freedom of being saved by grace is that we don’t have to do everything. We have to do something, certainly (faith and works), but we don’t have to do anything but the work that the Lord has set before us. So stop letting the image of other people’s holiness stress you out. Just because she has 10 kids doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom because you’re struggling with 3. Just because he reads the Bible every day doesn’t mean that has to be your devotion. If you’ve got your hands full with prison ministry, you don’t have to volunteer with the youth group, too.

If this picture doesn’t make you want to do something, you might need an attitude check. But the something you do might not be as obvious as ladling soup.

Now, if our Church weren’t serving the poor, we wouldn’t be the Church of Christ. And if the way you live isn’t informed by the plight of the poor, if you’re not conscious of fair wages and living simply and giving to the poor, then you’re ignoring the Gospel. But each of us is called to serve the poor–and the doubtful and the lonely and the imprisoned and the ill and the sinner–in our own particular way. Sometimes being at peace with that limitation is harder than any mission trip or morning at the shelter.

I’m still kind of obsessed with the poor–Jesus told us we had to be. But I’m not so judgmental any more, and I don’t feel so guilty that my work isn’t directly focused on the poor. Because holiness isn’t about doing everything. It’s about doing what you’re called to do.

So what about you? What are you called to do? And what other ministry do you have to sacrifice to do it?


While you’re wandering the internet wasting time, why don’t you head over to see Bonnie and vote on your favorite Catholic blogs for the Sheenazing Blogger Awards?7 See, I got nominated–twice! Coolest blogger8 and most inspiring, can you believe it? I’m kind of floored. But anyway, you can go vote for me (or somebody else) if you want to and then whoever wins gets to put a cool meme of Fulton Sheen on his or her blog. At least go scroll through the ballot and find some awesome new blogs to read. Because you didn’t have enough going on.

And make sure to check out Bonnie’s miracle baby while you’re there. Stillborn, with no pulse or respirations for 61 minutes, he came back to life and is a normal, healthy little boy today. Incredible!

  1. Particularly as it relates to how other people treat me, but that’s a matter for another post. []
  2. Ironically, I was shelling out a gazillion dollars a year on my education…. []
  3. Or, more likely, grading. []
  4. Or have the choir chosen for me, as often happens. Once, I was passing through a town on Good Friday and stopped in at a church for the liturgy. I literally stashed my suitcase under a pew, I was so transient there. Within 5 minutes, I was standing at the front of the church in a choir robe. Another time, I went to a church I’d only been to once or twice before. I started Mass in the pew. By the offertory, I was cantoring. How do these things happen to a person??? []
  5. Thanks for all the blog love, by the way. I pray for y’all daily! []
  6. You caught the reference, right? 1 Corinthians 12? []
  7. It’s Sheen–Fulton, not Charlie–plus amazing. Get it? It took me four or five times, too. Don’t be ashamed. []
  8. These people have clearly never met me. []

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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13 Responses to Why I Don’t Volunteer at Soup Kitchens

  1. Wonderful! What a beautiful reflection. Thank you for this.

  2. Joni says:

    God must be speaking some of the same things to me! I recently blogged along the same line (http://www.journeythoughts.blogspot.com/2013/01/when-bar-is-too-high.html).

    God has a place for each of us in the Body. Finding that place will bring us more fulfillment than trying to be square pegs in round holes!

  3. Bonnie says:

    Did you know Charlie Sheen goe his name – from his dad, duh. But Martin Sheen, whose real last name is Estevez, needed a less ethnic name to make it in Hollywood back in the day. He greatly admired Bishop Sheen and used his name in honor of him – and to help him get ahead. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Mary P says:

    Great post Meg. I realized this a few years ago and talked about when I was giving a witness on a retreat. For so long I thought I needed to do all these things (serve the poor, tutor children, visit the elderly, etc) to serve God. Until I realized that hey, God has given me very specific gifts and he wants me to use those, not waste them by going to dig wells in Africa (not that it’s not useful, just not as useful as my other skills). I’ve found a career which involves using my technology and business skills to help nonprofits become more effective at fundraising and using technology to support their mission. I love what I do and I feel like I have a larger impact on the world than if I were teaching English to poor children in a developing country. I also have a daughter and my call right now is to be her mother, not to leave her home alone while I go save the world. My husband, likewise, went through a similar crisis. Now he is a statistician focusing on educational policy and special education. He is super smart and his mathematics skills would be wasted if he was not using them this way. Like you said, God has so much work that needs to be done–our job is to pray and discern how we fit into that work. It might not mean having 10 children or being a missionary in Africa (then again, it might!).

    • Meg says:

      Exactly! And if there’s something you’re good at that you love and the Church needs, do that! Sometimes we think that being holy means doing awful, hard stuff. Sometimes it does–but not always, praise God!

  5. T.J. Capaldi says:

    Hey Meg,

    One thing you didn’t touch on is the different types of poverty. In my limited experience and in hearing the testimony of others, it is sometimes the case that the poorest in terms of material wealth can be the richest in spirit and vice versa. That is to say, much of the time you and others are still “serving the poor” through your work even if you’re not in the streets or volunteering at a soup kitchen. You were probably alluding to this throughout the post, but I thought it was worth sharing.

    Thank you for being so awesome and joyful!

  6. Jamie says:

    Sorry I’m really late to the comment party, I actually tried to the other day but was getting a weird error…I just wanted to say that I really really really needed to read this…thank you, thank you, thank you!! This is a GREAT perspective. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Meg says:

      That error kept kept kept happening but the 15th time, the tech support lady said someone else was making changes so I changed my password and so far so good–fingers crossed!

  7. Ashley says:

    This is a great reminder that’s easy for me to forget. Honestly, my biggest issue is finding balance between doing nothing or very little and doing everything.

  8. Art says:

    It’s nice to see the Mother Theresa’s and Billy Graham’s but our only prayer in this matter is that the Lord will help us to be the best ME that I can be.
    Art recently posted…Lord Why Didnโ€™t You Heal Me ?My Profile

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