The Surprising Gifts of Service

On a middle school mission trip a few years ago, we served a meal to women in a shelter. Some of the women were quiet and didn’t express appreciation for our service. Some might even have seemed a little dismissive. Afterwards, I had a conversation with a few youth, who were a little disappointed at the lack of gratitude – relating to me that “they didn’t even say thank you.”

This is such an important and appropriate feeling for young people who are still cultivating the maturity to serve without an expectation of gratitude. Of course they wanted to feel appreciated, to feel, in the moment, that they were making a difference in the lives of those in need. Don’t we all?

Sometimes it isn’t that simple or easy. Sometimes we put a bag lunch next to a man sleeping on a park bench, and he doesn’t even wake up, much less say thank you. Sometimes we play with a child whose family is in crisis, and that child runs away. Or maybe we clean up a trash-filled plot of land to help prepare a garden we will never get to plant, or which may end up strewn with trash again.

I am reminded of a poem on the wall in Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta, printed in our 2017 mission trip journal.


People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

We are called to go out in service to the world as “the hands and feet of Jesus.” Jesus was sometimes sought out and admired so much that he had to leave town to find time for himself. But sometimes he was questioned, ignored, criticized and ultimately so feared and vilified that his followers denied him and he was nailed to the cross. But God continues to love abundantly anyway, and this is called grace.

In our lives, we sin, we don’t always care, love, act and think as we should, and we continue to receive the gift of God’s grace, so in response, we are called to live our lives with grace, compassion and service for others.

Our time serving alongside each other, and especially young people, can lead to incredible conversations that help us all grow as human beings and as Christians.

Mission trips allow for immersion in service and the growth of relationships that promote many deep and life-changing conversations. But meaningful experiences can be had while doing simple acts of kindness and service. Baking a cake for a neighbor or a soup kitchen, playing with the kids of IHN families while they live at our church, or working together on a Saturday of Service, can generate surprising conversations with your family about justice, purpose, faith, responsibility, compassion and many other important topics. Over time, they help reduce our self-centeredness, increase our concern others, and teach us that we can indeed make a difference.

One year, I accompanied a group of kids on their Saturday of Service required for Confirmation. We worked hard cleaning up and painting at Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia. On the way home, I acknowledged that it was hard work and asked how they felt about it. They admitted how much they had NOT wanted to go, even considering feigning illness to get out of it, but it actually ended up being “so much fun!” Wow, that was God teaching us all a quiet lesson about the gift of service.

It’s not what you leave for them, it’s what you leave in them.

Parents often think about the legacy we will leave for their kids – the material comfort and security – but we also think about what we leave in them – the heart, the conscience, the faith that will support them for a lifetime. Service for others is a fundamental way to cultivate the heart of faith and compassion that will give them purpose, strength and joy no matter what else life brings.

For service ideas for your family, visit the blog post about Summertime Faith, or contact Sarah Hostetter. We will soon have a list of service activities for children, youth, young adults and families on the Mission page of the WPC web site.

Posted by Elizabeth Castleman at 12:41 PM
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