As my business busy season started winding down, I found myself spending an increasing amount of my time on Second Helpings management responsibilities: leading the effort to hire a new full-time Director; and representing the board on our IT committee as it embarks on a major reassessment of our systems and processes. I’ve been surprised at quite how much I’ve loved the work, at how grateful I am for the opportunity to do this work. It is a surprise since this comes at a time when, as I’ve recently written in (Why Care About Social Justice Work?) and Charitable Choices: Making A Difference, I am realizing that service work is important to me as part of my spiritual practice. Why is it, at a time when I realize the direct interaction of connecting with others in service gives me the greater gift, that I should find this management and office work so rewarding?
I have thought about this a great deal recently. As is so often the case, the answer has emerged spontaneously and unexpectedly.
First a little background.
Second Helpings of Atlanta (SHA) is a food recovery program. Around 400 volunteers collect food that would otherwise go to waste from a variety of grocery stores, food markets and meal providers, and take it to agencies who distribute to the food insecure. Each volunteer activity or event takes roughly 90 minutes, and each individual can schedule a weekly or monthly route, or simply volunteer on an ad hoc basis when needed. Our footprint is currently concentrated in and around Sandy Springs and Buckhead, though we are increasingly working outside, and are planning to do a lot more.
So we run the program for the benefit of the food insecure. But in terms of my spiritual practice, serving on the board is two steps (volunteers and agency) removed from interacting with the consumer of the food, two steps removed from the “spiritual encounter”. I do spend one morning a month visiting food outlets and taking their excess to a community assistance center, and this had confused me even more: why was I drawn to increasing my board activities rather than extending my direct volunteer work?
The answer emerged as I developed a deeper understanding of where our work really lies. I have been influenced – maybe inspired – in this realization by my podcast interview with Bill Bolling and by recent conversations both with SHA Board members and with the IT committee. Through seeing the work of SHA differently, I have come to regard my administrative work as analogous to the work I undertook as a Zen priest, to the work I now undertake in much of my interfaith as well as my ongoing Buddhist leadership roles: it is the work of creating an environment to support the spiritual growth of an army of volunteers.
I have come to believe that we do not just rescue food, but we create weekly and monthly opportunities for our volunteers to experience directly both the extent of waste in our food logistics and distribution system, and to see food insecurity firsthand. The former is guaranteed to happen on every event, but the latter is a little more ad hoc. Over time, however, every volunteer will, in delivering food to an agency, be directly confronted with the unexpected face of food insecurity. This face is unexpected in that the agency’s clients are not stereotypically raggedly dressed and dirty, impoverished and maybe mentally ill. Rather they are ordinary people in ordinary clothes; they are mothers with small children in strollers; they are your aunt or uncle or store attendant who have fallen on hard times. They are individuals who, without help, would be unable to provide the food their children need to have a chance of success at school; would be unable to transition back into a productive role in society.
I think I realized this in my heart at an early stage in my involvement with Second Helpings, which is why I felt compelled to get involved at operational and strategic levels in making the program bigger and better. It is why I am so committed to the process of hiring our first director; why I want to create an environment in which that individual can quickly grow our organization and become our executive director; why I have become convinced that our 90-minute-model is the mother lode of our organization. What’s not to like about creating the opportunity for anyone with a car to volunteer 90 minutes of their time once a month and directly encounter one of the greatest inequalities and causes of suffering and disadvantage in our society? What’s not to like about creating a process not just for addressing food insecurity, but for giving 400 people a routine opportunity for spiritual growth? What’s not to like about creating a community and conversation that is constantly growing and spreading the message and the opportunity for expansion of this work.
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If you would like to know more about Second Helpings or volunteer to service a route, visit the website and take a look around.