Roughly every other month, our high school and middle school students stuff the back of my Toyota Camry with soccer balls, snacks, and sidewalk chalk, and together we head to a small apartment complex in Southeastern Tacoma.
Our friends Ben and Stephanie Thornberg are property managers for a group called Network Tacoma, which provides low-income housing for families transitioning out of homelessness. When I first started talking with Ben and Stephanie about bringing the youth group out, we planned a service-day in their community garden—weeding, planting, and helping them prepare for the growing season.
As the time grew closer, Ben and Stephanie told us to leave our gloves and shovels, and just bring ourselves and some sneakers. What the kids really needed was not a cleaned-up garden, but to be played with and loved on. As it turns out, I think it’s exactly what we need too.
One of the hidden dangers of service is that we can become so fixated on projects that we forget about people. Jesus said as much to Martha in Luke 10:41-42:
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
The goal of serving is that God would use our effort and sacrifice to display his extravagant love to our neighbors, while also molding and shaping our hearts. When we become distracted from that mission, even with great intentions, we choose “the lesser things.”
Every time we visit Network Tacoma, I am also reminded that God wants us to receive his love from those on the margins of our society, as well as give it. As this quote from When Helping Hurts points out:
We are not bringing Christ to poor communities. He has been active in these communities since the creation of the world, sustaining them, Hebrews 1:3 says, by His powerful Word. Hence, a significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a LONG time . . . By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.
My hope and prayer is that our days of service-through-play will never be about “doing something” for the underprivileged or filling up our calendar with another youth event. They are about enjoying God’s presence with our amazing neighbors. And in this case, that enjoyment looks like soccer and smells like sunscreen.