What are You Giving Back for Lent?
Lent will soon be upon us — that period of penance, fasting and almsgiving to prepare ourselves for the joys of Easter. It is an interesting twist of Catholic tradition that Ash Wednesday, which is not a holy day of obligation, generally attracts considerably more people to church than most real days of obligation (when they used to fall mid-week).
Lent is a season which is seared on the hearts of Catholics, even ones who are not regular Mass-goers. A few years ago when I was in England, we did some research on the religious practices of young people who were at least nominally Catholic. Whereas fewer than 5% went to church even once a month, over 30% said that they gave something up for Lent. The practice had remained an important part of how these young people defined themselves as Catholic.
So the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” is one that many of us will ask, and will be asked, this week. We can go through the modern-day litany of penitential acts — no alcohol, no cigarettes, no chocolate, no bread, no swearing, no Facebook. And then inevitably the discussion will come to the relative merits of “giving up” versus “taking up” — doing something extra rather than doing something less.Let me therefore encourage a different Lenten practice and one which is also enshrined in Catholic tradition — not “giving up” but “giving back”.
This is a commendable variation since it perhaps avoids us using Lent as a way of resuscitating our failed New Year’s Resolutions. “I tried to give up smoking in January and failed so now I can try again.” I am not saying that giving up smoking is a bad thing. But the whole point about Lent is that I should be looking out not looking inwards. The African theologian Augustine defined sin as being incurvatus in se “turned in on oneself”.
Let me therefore encourage a different Lenten practice and one which is also enshrined in Catholic tradition — not “giving up” but “giving back”. Lent is a chance to do some volunteering, something which we all plan to do but many of us fail to get round to. It can make such a difference.
I have just been reviewing the work of the Denis Hurley Centre over the past year and looking at our volunteering. We run a kitchen that serves over 300 meals, five days a week, and we run it with just one social worker and one cook. That means almost all the work is done by volunteers. In fact, when I added it up it came to 2238 volunteering sessions over the year or 8-9 people each day we served. If you use the new R20 per hour minimum wage, and assume that most volunteers did a three/four-hour session, that means they contributed the equivalent of between R135000 and R180000 of labour to the project. An unbelievable amount!
So part of the power of the volunteering is in the work that it delivers. We certainly could not feed as many people as we do if we did not have volunteers. We also could not treat as many sick as we do — almost 3000 a month — if our paid team were not supplemented by trained volunteer doctors and nurses. And that is replicated all round the country in different NGOs, parish-based projects, community groups and formal organisations like SVDP, Rotary and CWL.
Armies of volunteers make a tangible difference to the lives of some of the most needy people in our midst: the elderly, the sick, the housebound, the youth. But, as is so often in the Church, the Pareto principle applies: that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. So if you are one of the 20% who do the bulk of the volunteering — many thanks and keep it up. If you are among the 80% who do very little: what a great opportunity you have now in Lent to make a start.
There are two further benefits of volunteering which should not be overlooked.
One is the witness it gives. A few years ago during the outbreak of xenophobic violence, an anxious young photocopier repair man was locked inside our building because of the problems on the streets outside.
When it was finally safe for him to leave, I was sure we would not see him again but instead he returned the following week to finish the job. He also told me something quite surprising: that over the weekend instead of going surfing or “chilling with his mates”, he had gone to volunteer at a refugee shelter near the city. Why? Because he had been so impressed by the work of the Denis Hurley staff and volunteers, and the fact that they carried on in the midst of all the problems, that he was moved to go and do his bit.
You never know who is watching you and who might be inspired by you.
The other reason is captured beautifully in a document that you will hear me referring to often this year. It is called Populorum Progressio and was published by Blessed Pope Paul VI 50 years ago next month. The title translates as ‘on the development of peoples’ and is a key manifesto for the Church’s work with the poor. The document recognises that ‘effort and sacrifice’ — which would include volunteering—are needed on ‘the road towards greater humanity’. It focuses on the importance of ‘the complete development of each human being’.
It struck me that in our work, for example, when a volunteer prepares and serves a meal for a homeless person, it is not just the poor person who is developing but also the volunteer. Because, in the words of Pope Paul, the encounter between the person who gives and the person who receives can “open the paths which lead to mutual assistance among peoples, to a deepening of human knowledge, to an enlargement of heart, to a more brotherly [or sisterly] way of living within a truly universal human society”.
So through volunteering our hearts are changed. We see that in the young people who come from schools and universities and confirmation groups: often discovering for the first time the joy that we receive when we give.
We see that in the corporate groups of lawyers and accountants who come in; they learn that their city is so much more complex and varied than they realised living in their bubbles.
We see that in the older people who come in, many of whom are initially scared of the city centre and who then after some time find themselves at home. And we see that in the homeless people who volunteer (about ¼ of our ‘workforce’) who discover that that can be the ones who give as well as the ones who receive.
Again to quote Pope Paul: “when work is done in common, when hope, hardship, ambition and joy are shared, it brings together and firmly unites the wills, minds and hearts of people: in its accomplishment, we find ourselves to be children of the same God”. That’s not a bad ambition for Lent.