Cockroaches and Service

A little while ago, Dillon and I decided to start a website together, in hopes of building a space for us to learn and grow with others.  At the same time, I have been challenged lately with trying to be more open, honest, and transparent, specifically in my writing.    So when I began the time-consuming task of transferring old blog posts onto this new platform, I was reacquainted with some of my old posts, mainly ones from India.

The words were so clearly written from a girl who was challenged in her thinking and theology and was continuously brainstorming ways to engage and alleviate the poverty around her.  I mean, there I was, knee-deep in broken-ness and poverty, yet finding joy and possibility in the slums of Coimbatore.

And as I read through those thoughts, I became painfully aware of how much I've changed since those days in my sweaty, little, Indian apartment.  

You see, ever since my first “real” exposure to service in 2005, I’ve been drawn to a lifestyle that integrates helping others into the rhythm of life.  I’ve participated in several mission opportunities, both national and international, and have created curriculum for teams engaging in working with others and have even led some of those teams myself.  I studied cross-cultural ministry in college and worked as a Graduate Assistant for a year in a “Service and Learning Center”.  To the best of my knowledge, I was living and breathing and being fueled by a life centered around the study and practice of service towards and with others. 

I’m going to be painfully transparent when I admit that it has been over a year since I’ve participated in any type of structured or organized service experience.  When I worked as a youth pastor, my job was structured in such a way that I was continuously exposed to opportunities where I could help others.  It was a part of my job, along with creating opportunities for students to be engaged and exposed to different forms of service.  But then I transitioned out of working for the church.  I stopped looking for places to be engaged.  I, unknowingly, distanced myself from the needs existing in the world around me.

At Messiah College, there is a day in April in which the entire campus community is encouraged to take the day and serve in some capacity.  There are on-campus opportunities and off-campus experiences, each ranging in activity and focus.  This year, I had the privilege of taking a group to the city to partner with an organization seeking to aid single mothers in their transition from homelessness to more permanent housing.  While serving there, our group was tasked with preparing a newly emptied apartment for the next family who would move in, which included repainting and cleaning the rooms.

I was put on clean-up duty and as I began scrubbing down the kitchen, I was fairly grossed out (in a hopefully non-obvious way).  Everything I touched felt dirty and the numerous cockroaches on the countertops and the dead mouse in the corner didn’t help ease that feeling.  Initially, I had to push myself to get elbow deep in the mess. 

It was embarrassing. 

Here again, I was reminded of my time in India; a country not necessarily known for its cleanliness.  I would spend every Thursday with World Vision in the Coimbatore slums, sitting in huts and holding naked babies, with the pungent smell of feces wafting about.  I was reminded of Milton, the cockroach that spent almost every evening in our apartment living room and of the ants that would often make their way into the kitchen as we were preparing meals.  And I was reminded of the girl who fearlessly and willingly placed herself in less-than-favorable conditions because she believed that the work she was doing was God’s work, and it was countercultural and messy and meaningful, and it was work she was proud to be a part of.

It’s funny how life can change so drastically in just a few short years.  So here I was on service day, faced with a version of myself that I wasn’t necessarily proud of.  But as I continued to clean the counters and empty the fridge and wipe down the walls, feeling bad about myself, God reminded of the value of the work being done.  I was reminded that this apartment wasn’t just a space being cleaned, but it is soon going to be someone’s home.  It’s where a single-mom will raise her babies and where some of those babies will learn to walk or talk or read.  It’s where they will make memories and laugh and cry and grow.  This is a place where this family may experience the tangible love of Jesus for one of the first times.  As someone who hopes to be a mama someday, I began to see these tasks as sacred work; holy work.  I placed myself in that mama’s shoes, thinking about how blessed I would be, knowing that handfuls of people had given their time to ensure my new home was beautiful and clean and safe.

Often times we (or I) believe that service needs to look a certain way to be viewed as meaningful work, but this experience reminded me that every action of love towards others helps brings a little more sacred into the secular.  All work, whether its planting seeds, reaping the harvest or simply gathering rocks to prepare the soil, all work is sacred work and deserves our full attention and recognition.  What we do matters.

"Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others."

- Philippians 2:1-4

Ashley Sider