July/August 2011 - Vol. 51

Sam Wolf (right) with new found friend in Detroit
The Blessing of Working with the Poor

by Sam Wolf

One of the great blessings of my Standing in the Gap year of service and mission with YouthWorks-Detroit has been the opportunity to work with the poor. It is a blessing I had not appreciated before this year. I knew that there was something inherently good about serving with the poor, but I always told myself it was not for me. It would require a great deal of sacrifice, working with a group that was radically different from me, and giving without ever getting anything back. 

They’re so different from me
One of the first things I noticed this year was my tendency to think of the poor as a group.  So from the start I had created a barrier. A group was much easier to think about then individual people. A group could be generalized, de-personalized. A group has certain characteristics which define it. The characteristics of the poor did not define me – I did not belong to that group. It would be hard to work with those people, I thought, because they were part of a group I was not part of. Since coming to Detroit, I have yet to work with the poor; I have worked with people. 

Sam helping Sr. Judy prepare lunches for the homeless

This realization hit me the first day I went out to deliver lunches to the homeless. As part of my gap service I head to the east side of Detroit once a week to help Sr. Judie Anne. Three or more times a week, she makes 75 to 80 bag lunches, gets in her van, and drives through the neighborhood around Eastern Market in Detroit giving them away. When I arrived to help her that first day, I thought my mission was to feed the poor. As we drove past block after block of abandoned houses and overgrown lots, stopping at houses which shouldn’t even be called homes, as individuals and families came out, that mission grew into impossibility. The food we gave them would provide their lunch that day, but nothing more. They would have the same troubles tomorrow. They would still be living in the same run-down house, with the same problems of unemployment, sickness, alcoholism, and drug addiction.  Feeding them today would make no difference in their life if they starved tomorrow.

But I saw something else as we drove. At every stop, Sr. Judie said, “Hello,” and she asked how everyone was and prayed with those who were sick or asked for prayer. I was amazed that everyone knew her, and she knew them. There was a name to go with every lunch. It was then that I discovered the real mission: the goal of this service was not to feed the poor of Detroit, it was to love them.  I could not love this thing I thought was the poor, but I could love Chester, Rocko, Mike, Pat, Dale and Leroy. 

Getting more than you give
Before coming to Detroit, I did not know what it meant to work with the poor, but I did know it entailed sacrifice. The rewards for working with the poor were long hours for too little pay and limited career advancement in a field where the successes are hard to see from the outside. The bleakness of working with the poor made me quickly dismiss the idea of ever doing  work in the area for an extended period of time. But God called me here to Detroit to do things which I thought I would never do.

The belief that there was no earthly reward for working with the poor was a product of my own sense of superiority. I could certainly give to them my talents, my service, my time. What could they give me? For these people, many who struggled with unpaid bills, drugs, alcohol, and mental illness, to give me something meant that they had something that I did not.  To my surprise, I discovered they did.

What they have and share with me is their faith, hope, and love. Every time I go with Sr. Judie and go to the soup kitchen, I am blessed by the people I see. They express gratitude for things which I take for granted. They know that what they have is a gift from God. They encourage my faith when they share about how God has worked in their lives, and how he will continue to provide for their daily needs. Their hope is firmly planted in the Lord.  And the gift they give most freely is their love. 

My admiration for those who serve the poor has not diminished. I have seen first-hand the challenges that they face, but I have also seen the blessing of their work and  I have experienced those blessings myself. Those blessings have changed how I view working with the people I once called the poor.

[Sam Wolf grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota as a part of the Community of Christ the Redeemer. He studied Political Science at the University of Minnesota and graduated last May.  He is currently doing a Gap year serving with YouthWorks-Detroit and is a staff worker for Detroit Summer Outreach in Detroit, Michigan, US.] 

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