Can you imagine life in our North Country without volunteers? Their impact is beyond calculation. Food bank volunteers weigh, sort, and stock critical donations. Trail volunteers swing Pulaskis, clear old trails and cut new ones for all of us to enjoy. Volunteers pull invasive plant species from our waterways, reducing the need for herbicides. Search and Rescue volunteers save lives from back country and swift water accidents. And youth activities… we can’t calculate the thousands of volunteer hours offered in classrooms, or scouting, or on sports fields to help shape the next generation.
Psychologists identify a variety of motivations for volunteering. We can achieve “personal development” by challenging ourselves, making new friends, even enhancing a career. We can gain “understanding” of other people, cultures, or places. We might respond to a “community concern” and focus on a project or an activity which improves those with whom we share our lives. And, frankly, there is “esteem enhancement.” We feel better about ourselves and our place in society. (Yes, there can be a little bit of ego in volunteering!)
For me, the driving motivation, however, is “values.” Across decades in time, in hundreds of sermons and countless Sunday school lessons, I’ve absorbed a portion of Christian values. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he charges his readers, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Call it love, call it sympathy, call it compassion, this value undergirds so much of our volunteering.
In my faith walk, I’ve been called to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to establish base camps for hundreds of other volunteers who responded to the crisis. Later, answering the invitation from Friends of Scotchman Peaks, I found great joy in the “citizen science” of the Wolverine Project. Winter snowshoeing, bait stations, and critter cams gave me satisfaction as we collectively learned more about wolverines and their mustelid cousins in our nearby mountains. Yet nothing has engaged my volunteer spirit like being a part of the ongoing climate movement. Challenging the fossil fuel industry for its ongoing contribution to climate change is the battle of a lifetime.
The values I hold dear are about caring for Creation: the two legged, the four legged, the feathered, finned and furred and the very planet on which we all live. So, today, these values are lived out in my campaigning against new coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon and crafting ways for denominations and individuals to divest from their fossil fuel stock.
As I consider this phase of my life, the wisdom of Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and author, continues to inform me. In her “Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully,” she asserts the meaning of life is about, “being caring, being interested, begin honest, being truthful, being available, being spiritual, being involved with the important things of life, of living…”
Volunteering contains so much of this “being.” Volunteering seems so vital to self and to the health of the communities of which we are a part.
Now, winter’s days and nights lay ahead. The change in the rhythm of the seasons provides us an opportunity to assess our connection to God, to each other, and the balance in our lives. In quiet moments, we have the chance to reflect on how we worship, how we live as part of family, how we work, how we play, and yes, even how we volunteer.