I am something of a life-long church volunteer. I grew up attending church, and even as a kid I spent time volunteering. When I was in college, I slacked off on church attendance quite a bit, but I had a lovely year when I volunteered for a Wednesday night kids' ministry (where at least twice I painted my hair as a reward for the team with the most points).
I remember how nervous I was that first Sunday. I had given myself a week to work up to it. I checked out the website, looked at a map to make sure I knew where to go and where the parking options were. Trying new things by myself when I know there will be a bunch of people is really hard for me. As I drove onto the Northwestern campus, I was greeted by the parking team. Oh, the parking team! At the other churches I had visited, I didn't know where to park or where to go once I got inside the building. At Substance, there were these crazy joyful people waving bright orange flags guiding me to a spot. When I parked my car, I sat for a moment fighting back tears. I hadn't even set foot in the church yet, and I knew there was a joy here that was unlike any church I'd attended before.
Substance has been my church home ever since that first Sunday. I spent my first few months attending lots of subgroups, trying to find friends even though all of the newness was so uncomfortable for me. In early 2010, I decided I was finally ready to volunteer. I was a little wary, but knowing that I wouldn't have to do it every week and that I could stop if I needed to, I took the plunge. Because of the impact my first visit had on me, I had no doubts that I wanted to join the parking team. I helped out on the last Sunday that Northwestern had only one service, and the next week when we jumped to two services, I began a three-and-half-year journey on the 1st service red team, part of that time as the team lead.
During the summer of 2010, I made a few connections during a volunteer party and found myself connected with someone who was running lighting. I started training for the media team, and for years I planned my schedule around the Sundays when I was either parking or running lighting (sometimes both in one day). I still run lighting regularly for Northwestern, The Well, and for other things like Deeper or Family Fun Night on occasion.
Being a volunteer has drastically changed my experience at Substance, and really my entire life. I feel such ownership; Substance is MY church. I know the staff, the pastors, the interns. I get up earlier on Sundays than I do for work on Mondays, and I'm OK with that. Best of all is the relationships I have made. The people volunteering with me are not just fellow volunteers or church members. They are my friends. They are people who have shown me grace when I have failed spectacularly. They are the people who encourage me when depression makes it seem like there is nothing good in the world. They pray for me when my faith is failing. In the past six months alone I have experienced support from so many of my friends when my car broke down, and they rejoiced with me like crazy when God provided a way to replace it.
Since my depression diagnosis in college, my life cycles through periods of normalcy and periods of bleakness. I think it can be hard for people without depression to understand how inaccessible God can seem when you're in the middle of a dark pit. My friends stick by me even when I'm doubting or angry. I am part of a community that wants health and wholeness but appreciates how complicated the journey to get there can be. I'm in one of those hard times now, and the late-night texts and conversations give me the strength to keep going. I find joy in putting aside the pain that I feel and serving others, even if only for a few hours a week. Volunteering keeps me connected with my friends, but also reminds me to look outside of myself, to try to keep perspective on the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God.
I think what happened at church this morning sums up how being a volunteer has made my life more than just going through the motions. I volunteered to park this morning, and when we were done, the four of us stayed backstage talking for the rest of the service. We talked about really deep things, shared parts of ourselves that we probably don't share with just anyone. And the only reason we even met each other was because of volunteering. Between services I went up to the media booth to say hi to my friends. I mentioned that I hadn't actually attended first service but wasn't sure I was going to stay for the second service, and someone joked about how me coming up to the media booth was church for me. It really is, in a way. In my time volunteering at Substance, I have made friends who make my life richer. These people value me, they assure me that they do not define me by my mistakes, and they appreciate having me be part of the team. The people at Substance aren't perfect, but they continue to show me a love that keeps me going even when everything else is telling me I shouldn't exist. There are days when I fully intend to show up, put in my time serving, and go home, but every single time I am reminded by the people around me that life is so much better when I engage and choose to live for more.