Aristotle once said, “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” While there certainly is great value in learning and growing through solitude, prayer, reading and study, some of the central characteristics of Christianity are learned most effectively by hands-on practice. We learn to love, serve and respect others by loving, serving and respecting. Reggie McNeal reminded us at Diocesan Convention that one of Christ’s clearest commandments was to be a blessing.
God told Abraham that he was going to bless him so that he could in turn be a blessing to the world. We are to be about blessing others. We become more aligned with God’s kingdom and help to create it – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – by loving our neighbor, and we are to pay special attention to those who are marginalized by society, as they have a prominent position in God’s sight and economy.
Spiritual formation naturally and powerfully takes place when we focus on being a blessing, establishing God’s kingdom and loving well. And when we, God’s people, are doing this, everyone wins. We grow and experience God’s heart and spirit in wonderful ways, and others get a taste of God’s love and grace as well.
Isaiah 58:10 puts it this way: “And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones.”
I have personally been spiritually formed in significant ways by relationships, volunteer positions, and jobs that have been about service in settings outside my comfort zone; a homeless shelter and a public-housing community to name a few. Such settings are humbling and help me experience my own humanity and weakness through the brokenness of others, placing me in a better position to be open to and receive from God.
I currently serve as the community engagement coordinator with Episcopal Community Services (ECS). I am always grateful for time spent interacting with our members, and I have the privilege of helping others engage in our work and be stretched and blessed by their experiences as well.
One engagement opportunity is our Life Celebration parties at Friend-to-Friend, ECS’ outreach program in North Park for homeless adults diagnosed with a mental illness. These parties take place on the third Friday of each month for an hour at lunchtime. They honor our members for their work rebuilding their lives and offer them a chance to celebrate birthdays, successes and things for which they are grateful.
The vision is for different groups from around the diocese to provide lunch and attend the event to interact and celebrate with our members. We have co-hosted three successful Life Celebration parties so far. They have been special for both our members and volunteers.
Friend-to-Friend gives members a place to belong, where they are treated with respect and dignity and provided with support to reach their goals and rebuild their lives. Spending time there allows volunteers to join this work of tangibly communicating, “You matter and are worth celebrating.”
St. Philip’s, Lemon Grove provided the meal for our second party and brought a great team to the member center. Parishioner Debbie Kistler was touched by the experience. She is relatively new to her church and said that by doing something meaningful together, she is more connected to her church community and excited about service and what God will lead them to do next.
The Rev. Carlos Garcia, priest-in-charge at St. Philip’s, said of the experience, “I do not remember my congregation responding so enthusiastically to a project as they did to the Life Celebration at ECS. It was spiritually rewarding to see Friend-to-Friend clients and St. Philip’s parishioners eating, dancing and enjoying each other’s company. I thank God for this tremendous opportunity!”
After the lunch, Kistler reflected on the time and said, “The laughter, joking, handshakes, great food and music did not take away from noticing those who were in the corners, outside or constantly watching every movement, just waiting to bolt. Those wondrous human beings with their own life stories were there taking their chances, eating good food, listening and watching those around them. This program has given me help as
well. What a wonderful reminder that God truly loves us all.”
Another of ECS’ programs is Downtown Safe Haven (DTSH), a residential program for our members whose goals include working toward permanent housing. David Merry is a member of All Saints’, San Diego and has recently started volunteering at DTSH on a weekly basis. He is working toward a profession in ministry and is thrilled to engage with our residents in a relationally-focused volunteer role.
“Last night was a truly wonderful experience for me,” wrote Merry in an email. “It was so nice to finally be able to start my personal ministry in a place so filled with peace. I felt welcomed and at home. DTSH is filled with so many inspiring journeys to learn from and be encouraged by. I can only hope and pray that I can be half as helpful to the members as they are in providing inspiration to me in pursuit of my service to God.”
In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe you? And when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ And the king will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.’”
This is powerful in that Jesus is identifying himself with our neediest neighbors. When we think about spiritual formation, what could be more formative than connecting directly with Jesus? When we take opportunities to see, serve, love, listen to, spend time with, and be a blessing to the “least of these,” we meet Jesus and we will be changed.
To learn more about ECS’ Life Celebration parties or other ways to engage, please contact Deann Ayer at email@example.com or 619-694-9892. +
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