I found this excerpt in an old journal, written when I used to volunteer in Chicago with the Night Ministry. One of their programs is a large recreational bus that has a medical station set up in the back room. It travels to two or three neighborhoods each night and serves coffee and juice and hot chocolate to anyone who drops by. Sometimes they just line up outside to receive their treats; sometimes they come in and sit down on the couches and seats within, especially on the cold winter nights.
It was a life altering few years that changed my perspective on how I live my life.
The bus is gross. How could it not be? Sure, the volunteers and staff are supposed to clean it up after every shift, but some nights, when you’ve been serving cookies and condoms from 6:30 p.m. till 1:30 a.m., and maybe had some lonely guy or hyper gal talking at you, or even someone venting hostility, your shift leaves you drained.
Listening is hard work. Sometimes it’s the hardest part about volunteering. Even harder than serving gallons of hot chocolate and tons of cookies to a hundred kids pushing and shouting and demanding and loud. There have been times when stuff was thrown at the bus, like eggs or trash. I’ve even been hit with a plastic bag filled with the crumbled cookies I handed to the kid myself.
Mostly, though, the people who come are happy to see you. They welcome your presence into their dark and isolated world, so they make the most of your short visit by soaking up as much companionship as they can. Storing it up against the long dark moments until the next person looks at them with their heart and eyes and really sees them again.
Listening, standing there and letting someone talk at you no matter whether it’s because the person is lonely, drunk, angry or just manic, can exhaust you in ten minutes flat, fifteen tops.
On the other hand, the opportunity to just listen has presented me with some of the most meaningful minutes of my volunteering experience.