I'm often asked how do you know how and who and where to serve; the need is so great and overwhelming! I believe we need to look and pay particular attention to what breaks our own heart, where do you find yourself longing most to make an impact or as Bill Hybels asks, what creates a 'holy discontent' within your own soul? Spend time asking those questions and then go and do that; and do it well and do it deeply.
The words of Jesus and Holy Scriptures are always the best guide when in doubt. I've looked to these scriptures as a to show us what is most important when serving others.
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me...Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:35-26,40.
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27.
"Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other.” Zechariah 7:10.
Based on these scriptures, here are some tangible ways to serve in your own community and a few organizations that could prove to be good resources. You need to of course do your own research and inquires before supporting any organization.
Foster care - Learn about becoming a respite or permanent foster care provider in your community for kids whose parents cannot care for them. Or learn what your local Foster Care system needs. Foster children often need pajamas and clean clothes and backpacks with school supplies as they are often quickly displaced from their homes. Foster Coalition is a good resource to show you ways to serve your local Foster Care system and Foster families.
Hunger Relief and Food Insecurity- Every county in the United States has people of all ages without access to the nourishment they need to be live the life God intends for us. Find out in your community who are the most nutritionally vulnerable. Are there children going to school without breakfast? Is there a resource for reduced cost food for the working poor that needs support? Are there veterans, seniors, or homeless in need of hot meals?
Feeding America is a great resource to find out about your county and what food banks could use some help or resources.
Salvation Army is a trusted network to get you tied in locally to a soup kitchen or another community outreach service.
The Sheridan Story - Fighting Child Hunger is a great example of meeting a simple need to help kids in your community and can easily be duplicated.
Many local churches will often have the pulse of the needs in your community. Ask.
Ask your local grocery stores and restaurants what they do with perishable leftover food they don’t sell daily. There are often food banks and kitchens that will come and pick up food. And if they don’t, start a program! There is so so much food being wasted in our nation every single day.
Immigrants - There are hundreds of Immigration Detention Centers around the United States, with over 400,000 people currently being detained annually. Oft times people seeking temporary or permanent residency for a whole host of reasons can be detained in prison-like facilities for months and even years. There are often families and children in need of visitors and care and advocacy. (Civic - Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement) has a website EndIsolation.org with more information on how you can serve and care for this forgotten group of people.
Prisoners - The United States prison system currently has over 2.2 million adults incarcerated. Scripture calls us to care for the prisoners and yet this is one of the must under-served populations in our nation. Prison Fellowship is a great organization serving the most neglected. Pen Pals prison ministry is also a way to care for inmates.
Seniors - Volunteering to bring meals to shut-ins, spending time at a local church or community senior center, or driving the elderly to appointments is a great way to serve this treasured population. Meals on Wheels affords excellent opportunities to serve, as does Volunteering with Seniors.
Sick and Suffering - There are many hospitals and convalescent facilities in your own community wherein countless folks never receive visitors. If you have the gift of music or enjoy reading outloud or playing board games, why not see about sharing your time and gifts? Hospice volunteering is a wonderful way to care for those suffering and in the last stages of life.
Refugees - For centuries upon centuries people have been forced to flee their homes because of violence and persecution...including Jesus and his family. Women and children comprise a huge percentage of refugees today, particularly in the volatile regions in the Middle East. This population needs our love, attention, understanding and resources. World Vision, World Relief and We Welcome Refugees are organizations working with this vulnerable population.
When in doubt, look around you! Who lives next door or across the street? How can you serve and love your neighbor? Can you do yard work? Take out garage cans? Bring a meal? Invite someone for dinner? And of course, never ever forget that your local Young Life programs always need volunteers!