Swimming in Purell

Last Saturday I was volunteering in an inner city church on Indianapolis’s near-east side in an extremely poor neighborhood called Brookside. I was packing snack bags for students at a local school that would be handed out during their week of standardized testing. The event had been organized through the church I attend, which is essentially a mega-church located in one of the wealthiest suburbs of the country. All of the volunteers there also attended the church and many actually live in the suburb my church is located. I had worked at this inner city church (they’re partnered with my church) several times before but for many of the volunteers, this was their first time volunteering at this inner city congregation (Social justice people: try not to roll your eyes).

purellAt one point in the day we realized we hadn’t packed enough bags so we had to set a packing station back up to make up for the shortage. Each of the bags needed to have exactly sixteen animal crackers in them, so the best way to get the correct count in each Ziploc bag was to dump the crackers out onto a table and count out 16 for each bag. As soon as we dumped the tub of animal crackers out onto the table one of the volunteers, a woman with kids in tow presumably in her early 40’s came up to the table in a rather frantic manner. “Have these tables been sanitized?” she asked. (Mind you these tables had just been used to pack snacks a few minutes ago in the same manner). I said, “No, they haven’t. It’s not a big deal, we used them earlier for the same thing.” Visibly irritated and distraught she responded in a rather angry tone, “Well they have to be sanitized, where’s the Purell?” Then she walked away, never to be seen again, and we continued packing the bags.

When I got to my car and drove home that day I reflected on that exchange. I thought to myself, isn’t it strange that someone drives over 30 minutes into Indianapolis’s worst neighborhood to pack some snack bags for kids and gets upset over whether or not a plastic table had been sanitized? I also thought to myself how sad it was that this seemed to be her prerequisite for participating in getting these extra bags packed up and that compared to most if not all of the problems Brookside faces each day, it was insignificant.

Sometimes I think we as people who are tremendously blessed financially speaking, wait for things to be perfect before we get involved. We want things to be safe and sanitary before we get to work. Basically we won’t dive in unless we know we’ll be swimming in Purell. Many times, the details we sweat are pretty small too. I think that’s because when we start doing something that puts in a place that’s a little outside of our comfort zones we tend to overcompensate for the unfamiliarity of the situation. We want things to be perfect because, quite frankly, we’re afraid of the uncomfortable. It’s a natural response for someone who’s going into a new situation, but that doesn’t make it good.

You see, venturing out of our respective comfort zones, accepting that things won’t be perfect, and still giving something away (time, money, whatever) to others in need is something we HAVE to be doing. A community’s problems aren’t alleviated by us waiting for perfect. If there’s anything I’ve learned from years of volunteering, missions trips, and service projects, it’s that the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. It’s a bit cliché I realize, but it’s true. Things generally deviate from the original plan when you’re getting involved in a mess and that’s okay. I’ve found that things that get us messy and cause some discomfort also cause us to grow. It’s a really simple truth.

I don’t want anyone reading this to think poorly of the woman in the story. Obviously going and volunteering is better than doing nothing. However, I do think it’s important to ask ourselves this: When have I waited for things to be perfect? When have I waited for a swimming pool of Purell? Has it been a lack of time? A lack of energy? Deflated emotions? No money? All of those are excuses. Once you’re doing asking that question, then it’s time to ask yourself if there’s anything that’s keeping you from getting involved with something now. If the answer is anything at other than no, maybe it’s time to let that go.

Disclaimer: please don’t attempt to actually swim in a pool of Purell. That would make everything burn. A lot.

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