Starting at home
Whenever my husband, Cliff, and I are invited to share with youth on the topic of missions and community service, we are always encouraged by the bright sparks in the crowd.
Though many say young people today are apathetic, complaining and superficial, there are many with a heart for the poor and needy, eager to learn about the meaning of compassion, hungry to understand the purpose behind serving.
The fact is, in the midst of the exhausting rat race for recognition and achievements, young people today are also thirsty for real fulfilment.
Cliff and I always wish we have more time to answer all the questions, so I thought I'd start a series of posts, to answer some of the most commonly asked questions.
"How do I start here? Where do I begin?"
Serving the needy or what we term "community service" doesn't start when you visit an orphanage overseas. It starts right here, at home.
At home? But surely the needs of the dying and hungry in Africa or trafficked children in war-torn Sudan or the diseased in Calcutta are far more pressing than the needs of an old ah-gong (grandpa) staying in a forgotten one-room flat in Singapore?
The fact is, because of age or circumstance, many of us may not get to serve in those places regularly or soon. The key is not deciding to serve only when the needs are "dire enough", but choosing to serve now, today, and allowing our compassion, character and worldview to grow in our community right where we are. This growth is necessary anyway in equipping us for those faraway places we may dream of serving in.
To begin, we can ask:
Who are the needy around me?
They are everywhere, if we choose to see. From the single mother working at the cashier with five children staying in a small flat, to the elderly gentleman in a tattered shirt selling tissue packets by the roadside.
Everybody has a story. If we open our eyes to the people around us, we will find many we can bless. But many of us are unaware of our prejudices and assumptions.
"Oh that man isn't really crippled, he is just cheating."
"I always see that old lady here asking for coins. Everybody gives to her."
When we choose to judge, compassion has no place in our hearts. That man may not be crippled, but he may have lost a job; that old lady may not be penniless, but she may be bitter and lonely from the hardships of life, thrown out by her own family.
When we judge, the needs of others are blotted out immediately by our prideful assumptions.
If we choose to see the people around us with compassion instead of judgement, we'll see needs all around.
What can I offer?
I'm just a student; I'm just an office worker; I'm just a...
Many of us make the mistake of invalidating what we have to offer. But all of us can offer friendship.
Many of us assume the needy just want money. So we drop change into their old cardboard boxes in embarrassment and hurry by. But more than money, the needy actually need friends.
Stop. Ask for their names. It's as simple as that. And don't let circumstances hinder you.
An elderly grandpa busking by the train station once hurled ridicule at me, complaining about the meal I had bought him ("Why no chilli sauce?"); a busker once thanked me for my change through the microphone he was singing with, much to my embarrassment in front of my friends; a crowd stared as Cliff and I crouched down to ask a beggar in Hong Kong, a man with no legs lying stomach down on the wet ground, if he wanted dinner.
Because we offered our friendship and time, the elderly busker, Grandpa Zhou, softened his heart of bitterness and anger. Through years of consistent friendship, he started performing yearly at my birthday gatherings. He was even our guest performer at our wedding.
Another busker whom I occasionally smiled at on my way to work in the train tunnel started smiling back more often. After several months, he stopped me one day to give me cupcakes he baked. Dennis had become a friend, and we exchanged emails when I left to work for a different hospital.
A girl, who had heard through my blog that Dennis was giving guitar lessons, asked to learn from him, offering him dignity what money ultimately cannot buy.
During a trip to visit my husband's grandma in Hong Kong, we gave the man on the floor two minutes of our time. The next night, over a hot dinner in winter, he brought a friend on a wheelchair along, and they both told us they were deeply touched by a divine presence and felt that God was watching over their lives.
No one had taken them out for dinner before in all their years of begging.
Time and friendship speak volumes to the needy. Friendship says "you are my brother"; friendship says "we are equal"; friendship says "you matter and are of value to me".
More than money, people need our time and friendship. And we have that to offer.
What do they need?
When we see value in what we can offer, we can then take the next bold step: to choose to help on their terms, not at our convenience.
It was only through years of building a relationship with Grandpa Zhou that he shared candidly with me: "I hate bread. I used to like it, but so many people buy me bread to the point that I've grown tired of eating it every day, all the time!"
Think he sounds ungrateful? From his honest perspective, I gleaned an interesting insight. People buy bread for him because it is cheap and convenient the bread store is just next to where he busks.
But I learnt that to truly be a blessing, we must learn to give the needy what they need, not what is convenient for us.
That means choosing not to give them leftovers, hand-me-downs, or things we don't want.
It means taking a moment to ask them, "Uncle, Auntie, what do you need? Can I get you a drink or some food? What would you like?" instead of giving them whatever is convenient for us for the sake of salving our own conscience.
As time went by, I learnt that Grandpa Zhou hardly had the chance to eat hot or healthy meals. He expanded my heart to cook meals for him, and eventually we invited him over to our place for meals on special occasions.
Nearing the Lantern Festival, he shared with us how he had missed eating mooncakes. I took the opportunity to learn to make mooncakes, and Cliff invited him over to enjoy them with us.
You can be a blessing by asking the right questions and meeting those asked-for needs.
So yes, at the risk of sounding cheesy, loving the needy starts right here, at home.
We can open our eyes to the needy around us, validate what we can offer them and start building relationships and asking the right questions to be a blessing them.