Volunteer work as a form of prayer

Ever since I moved to Washington a couple of years ago, I’ve been repeatedly hearing the name of a particular woman in the area.

Jun 05, 2014

By Rhina Guidos
Ever since I moved to Washington a couple of years ago, I’ve been repeatedly hearing the name of a particular woman in the area.

She’s of Cuban descent, a mom, a grandmother. Having suffered displacement of her own, from Cuba to the United States, she’s helped countless immigrants in the city who also have been displaced from their homelands by causes such as wars, natural disasters, poverty or crime.

When she sent me an email recently asking to meet and talk about a project of mutual interest, I dropped everything I’d scheduled for that day and rushed to meet her at her home. When I arrived, there she was, a woman in her 60s, not particularly striking in any way. Yet for decades, after she got off work, she taught English classes, basic math and writing to women from Central American countries who arrived in the city, some as domestic workers or as refugees.

She taught them to answer phones, to get around on the bus or subway. If there was a basic skill they needed, this woman tried to identify it and found a way to help them master it. She never collected any payment for doing so.

I don’t know that she ever called it “volunteer work” but that’s what she’s been doing for decades while raising a family and trying to build a career.

When I asked why she did so much work, she answered with another question: “Aren’t we called to do so?”

Some people encounter God in eucharistic adoration, she told me, but, she was not one of them. In seeking greater intimacy with God, she said, the way she found the closeness she sought was by lending a hand to others, even by helping people who provided many moments of frustration. In learning to help and love them, she encountered Christ, she said.

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the sentiment she expressed by saying that volunteer work is a personal way to encounter Christ and is not just an expression of good will.

Ultimately, Christ is the model for those who choose to give, without asking for reward, of their talents and their time.

“He was the first to serve humanity, he freely gave his life for the good of all. That gift was not based on our merits,” Pope Benedict said. “Christ’s grace helps us to discover within ourselves a human desire for solidarity and a fundamental vocation to love.”

A desire to volunteer is most beautiful when it’s not governed by any promise of future recognition of our work, the number of good deeds we've done and can brag about to others, or to rack up awards or certificates to show how great (we think) we are.

There is something almost sacred about being around those who quietly set out to teach someone to cook, clean, type, perfect their command of a new language or learn to fill out a job application.

Volunteer work is then a special form of prayer because it brings us into direct contact with our brothers and sisters who need us most, and therefore, draws us toward God. Sometimes I walk by small-business establishments owned by Latinos in my neighborhood. Quite a few of them are now owned by former domestic workers helped by the woman I recently met.

Some of them now support financially works of charity, such as feeding the homeless in a soup kitchen at our parish. They drop off donations that help volunteers in our parish and surrounding community, and do the kind of work that once helped them escape lives of poverty and alienation.

Our contributions give fruit, not only when we help a particular person or group but also when we help them see that now they, too, have a responsibility to continue the prayer, in the form of service, that Jesus left for us.

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