Thanksgiving morning, I went to volunteer in Tenderloin with San Francisco City Impact. My tango friend Emily posted on Facebook that she would go there and I felt compelled to join.
The event was a huge “block party” serving the people who live in the area. Many of the 900 volunteers prepared and served meals and delivered groceries to resident’s homes. There was a clothing tent, a prayer area, a beauty tent, and a medical tent. I regretted lacking useful life skills when they called for qualified volunteers to switch to medical or beauty.
Emily and I signed up for the foot washing tent. Whoever wanted to have their feet washed, sat on a chair in front of one of us volunteers. We would help them take their shoes off, wash their feet in a small basin of clean warm water with a bit of soap and soaking salts in it, dry with a towel, put some lotion or therapeutic ointment on, if desired, and help them back into the shoes, while chatting and getting to know them
At first, nobody came. It was a cold morning.
The first person I served, along with another volunteer, was a young woman. Tall, thin, pretty. We asked her name, but I couldn’t quite hear it, so I’ll call her Anouk. Anouk was high: she could barely communicate with us coherently, all in brief bursts of the return from the space she was gazing into. We helped her onto the platform where the guest chairs stood (our chairs were on the ground, facing the platform). Her right knee seemed stiff, her limbs long, we took care to convince her to have her chair moved back a bit, so we could place her feet into the basin. Anouk kept rearranging her hair (do you have a hair tie? she asked me; I didn’t) and dropping a single use sealed up hypodermic needle on the ground while trying to hide it from us.
Then there was an elderly couple. It seemed like it would be uncomfortable for them to climb on the platform, so I knelt on the ground to wash the woman’s feet; her husband sat on a chair nearby. Another volunteer asked him if he wanted to have his feet washed; he declined. The woman’s name was Elena, the man’s, Lu. I started chatting with Elena, but she couldn’t speak much English, so I proceeded silently. They spoke with each other in Spanish. I gathered my wits and used all the 20 Spanish words I knew with them, much to everyone’s amusement. I have to admit, one of the phrases I knew was “Where are you from?” From Cuba. I told them I was Russian. We laughed about us being from Cuba and from Russia. After I helped Elena’s back into her shoes, Lu decided he wanted to have his feet washed too, so I did that.
Later, I asked one woman whose feet I washed, Gloria, if she lived around there. “Well,” Gloria said, “I am homeless.” “Did you spend tonight outside?” I asked. “Yeah.” I looked up at her: “It was so cold.” “It’s OK,” she smiled. She might be getting housing in the end of the month, and she worked. A little girl came by and stared at Gloria from behind me. Gloria greeted the girl warmly and asked if she was looking at her knee. Gloria’s pants were rolled up, so the water wouldn’t get on them, but I didn’t observe… Her shin bone was scarred and disfigured below the right knee and the knee cap was large. She was injured in a motorcycle accident (in the military?) and had a knee replacement. “My knee is metal now!” she explained cheerfully to the little girl “I can go around all the airport metal detectors.”
Over the couple of hours, I washed and gently massaged 5 or 6 pairs of feet. Men’s feet didn’t have calluses on them; women’s feet did. The feet came in different shapes, having carried different burdens. I said thank you to each person whose feet I washed.
Emily and I lingered after the event to help clean up. Emily was glad to have participated, but a bit disappointed we didn’t get to serve more people, to be more useful. She said, “You know, I organize volunteer events all the time, and now I understand how the people feel when they don’t get to do enough.” Then again, I wondered, for what we did there, it seemed suitable to be chill and relaxed. It’s not like we were offering urgent care. If we mindlessly rush to wash as many feet as possible, whom are we serving?
Whom are we serving?
In my world, volunteering to help communities is an indisputably good thing to do. But there is a certain darkness to the motivation.
I’ve read in books that volunteering is good for the person volunteering, specifically, their feeling of self-worth. I can see that. I struggle with self-worth sometimes, and when I volunteer, I feel approved and validated. Approved by strangers, by peers, by myself. Non-sustainably.
Then, there is alleviating the sense of guilt over my significant privilege. Being born healthy, intelligent, having grown up without too much trauma, in relative stability, with easy access to good education and good teachers, allows me to live comfortably now. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s uncomfortable to think so. So I occasionally donate money or services to feel better. Somewhat arrogantly.
Catering to the need for approval and alleviating guilt are clearly self-serving motives.
On the other hand, some of volunteering is just fun, because it’s social and creative (see Playing with Trees). Arguably, taking an opportunity to be social and creative is also self-serving, but I am not buying that argument, because both are genuinely bigger than self.
And then there is this. When we first get to know someone, it’s all small talk, pleasantries, being cool, presenting a facade. There is nothing wrong with that: facades are safe and they can be fascinating – at first. But the real gold is beyond the facade, seen when we get close enough to allow the imperfections, struggle, humanity to show, and beyond them, the glimmer of the light and strength holding it all together. Even with a peer, getting there is no easy feat, requiring time and trust, time and again.
When a stranger graciously and vulnerably allows me, with all my confused motives and lack of skill, to take care of her, I thank her for the gift of welcoming me closer to how she truly is and serving that.