By Michael Debaets
If my Servant Year has had a theme, it's been the theme of charity.
In itself, signing up for Servant Year Philadelphia is a charitable action -- it's donating a year of time and energy to the program. And, during the following months, as I worked at Covenant House PA, lived at House of Prayer, and completed the requirements of the Servant Year program, when my motivation would sometimes fail, I got the strength to continue by recalling and recommitting to my initial charitable decision.
By continually renewing that original charitable commitment, I have learned that the best way to put charity into action is to commit to doing a little bit over a long period of time.
At the beginning of the year, I was trying to do too much. I would be looking for extra charitable things that I could do for other people. I wanted to see that I had made a positive impact.
Covenant House seemed, at first, like the perfect place to do "extra charitable things," because there were so many opportunities for "going the extra mile." I wanted to really help these young men, to go above and beyond.
But whenever I got caught up in "doing extra charity" for any one of the residents in particular, I lost track of the big picture, my professional responsibilities, the reason why I was there. And the reason why I was there was to administer the charity of Covenant House. There's no charity called Michael DeBaets House. These men didn't come to Covenant House PA to get my help. They came to get Covenant House's help.
And Covenant House's help is nothing to scoff at. Covenant House -- the nation-wide organization -- is the largest provider of housing to homeless teens in the United States, and perhaps in the world.
When I began to realize that Covenant House was so good, I became free from a feeling of over-obligation to the residents. These days, whenever I start to wish I could do something extra to help them, I remind myself that I have already done a lot of good for them by working for the organization that shelters them. And I recommit to the structure of Covenant House, which keeps me from falling into sympathy too easily.
I don't have to do extra charity. I am already doing charity.
Covenant House was a great place to learn this, but I have also learned this by living with my housemates and by living within the structure of Servant Year. The explicit agreements that we make -- those are our primary obligations. And we keep those primary obligations, and they sustain our community.
For instance, my house wrote in our house rule that we meet every Wednesday to share dinner, and we meet every Sunday to plan the week. Rules like that are our long-term plan for house happiness. It's a little bit of charity spread out over a year. And that's our obligation to each other.
I've learned that, when I have these structures in place, I can relax a bit. I can trust.
And maybe that's God's little gift of charity to me.
Michael serves as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.
By Michael Debaets
Since September, I have been volunteering at Covenant House PA, a crisis shelter for homeless youth from the ages of 18 to 21.
Covenant House provides Philadelphia's homeless youth with immediate needs like warm beds, hearty meals, donated clothes, toiletries, and a safe place to stay. Covenant House also keeps residents from breaking each other's sanctuary by fighting, cussing, insulting, frightening, or becoming romantically involved with others.
After we make sure that the residents have what they need, we teach them to job-search, and we provide a structure for their week so that they don't wander around the neighborhood aimlessly every day. Since each resident comes to this program of their own volition, we hope that the program will encourage them to make better and better choices throughout the rest of their lives.
Jesus Christ said that when he will come again to this earth to judge all men, he will tell his disciples, "Thank you for clothing me when I was naked, for feeding me when I was hungry, for visiting me when I was in prison, for giving me drink when I was thirsty, for welcoming me when I was a stranger." He then tells the disciples that they will reply, "Lord, when did we ever do these things for you?" and he will answer them, saying, "Whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did them for me."
Covenant House PA feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, clothes the naked, and welcomes those who cannot find welcome anywhere else.
The mission statement of Covenant House states that we will treat every resident with absolute respect and unconditional love. I have only been able to do this because I remember the words of Christ in the previous paragraph. By his words, I know that he is present in the needy people I serve, and it is insofar as he is in them that they deserve my absolute respect and my unconditional love. Padre Pio said, "Every person in need is Christ," and our mission statement says the same thing.
In my time so far as a Servant Year member, I have learned time and again that true joy comes from being in relationship with Jesus; even at those times when I needed to humble myself and act as no more than a servant, I was happy because I was with him. Before this year, I had not served much at all, but this Servant Year I am learning from Christ how to serve and not tire, as he said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
One of my mentors told me, "this year is for you to grow and learn." I have grown in several professional capacities: in managing my time, in communicating clearly, and in giving my organization a good face. I have learned about the problem of homelessness in Philadelphia, about the services that Covenant House provides, and I have learned most of all that service in the name of Christ brings joy.
I look forward to spending the remainder of my Servant Year volunteering at Covenant House PA.
Michael Serves as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.