September 2013

It’s like Church-sans-frontier

Volunteering quietly opens the door to another house, both in my neighbourhood and in my heart, that I might otherwise pass by, writes Alice Priest.

BY Alice Priest

Driving along recently, the radio on but my thoughts elsewhere, my ears pricked up. Recent studies have discovered that serotonin, the human happy hormone, can be released in a number of ways including, as the report was highlighting, volunteering.

Volunteering – being neighbourly – leads to measurable rises of serotonin and feelings of happiness in those who undertake such activities as well as in those who receive these acts of kindness. It made me think about my own recent experiences of volunteering.

I wasn’t aware of this when I called the contact person on my parish bulletin about becoming a volunteer at a local psychiatric hospital chapel service. I was much more aware of having recently spent a week with senior students on a Good Sam Community Outreach program, volunteering in a range of aged care and crisis accommodation centres. The week-long program was in my home town and opened my eyes a little wider to my neighbours.

My regular work and values mean that I’m doing my best day-by-day to go about the business of being neighbourly. However, I find that volunteering quietly opens the door to another house, both in my neighbourhood and in my heart, that I might otherwise pass by.

So, once every few weeks I turn up with a plate of bun or a pile of sandwiches at the chapel of a hospital for people who see things differently all of the time. With the chaplain and the volunteers, I welcome the congregants – and they welcome me, remembering my name, and directing me to “Sit here”, next to them. We share the chapel service and then we serve morning tea outside in the morning sun.

Sometimes I get the question, “Are you a nurse?”, and I reply, “Just a volunteer”. It’s funny, because the volunteers are often also trying to work out who’s who – who’s a patient, who’s a nurse, who’s a carer, who’s the bus driver? The mystery of who we are and how we are is broken open in this mix, and I realise that any one of ‘us’ could be any one of ‘them’ – and any one of ‘them’ could be any one of ‘us’.

The chapel is inter-denominational and so the service is celebrated by a different chaplain from one of the various Christian Churches from week to week. This matters a bit to the volunteers (especially the Catholics, who want to know, “Is it Catholic?”), but hardly seems to register with the general assembly who just participate without questioning the brand.

Every chaplain seems to get called ‘Father’ regardless of ordination status. It’s like Church-sans-frontier (church without borders) and it’s nice. It’s not that it makes me think denominational differences don’t really matter, it just makes me remember that they don’t matter so much, and perhaps even less at the level of the divine.

This all raises for me an endless and dynamic question, “Who is my neighbour?” As does the response, which challenges me to work at expanding my neighbourhood, especially to those who most often make up the social underbelly: the psychiatrically “lost and forsaken”, and those from “the highways and hedges” (Luke 14) of conventional life. I have to work on it, but my neighbours at the hospital seem, on some level, to be already open to all, artlessly neighbourly and guileless in their acceptance of me. It nudges me not to be so quick to judge.

There’s a welcome which is profound in this small chapel service, and it includes a welcome to colour beyond the lines of regular liturgical participation. Asking rhetorical questions during the homily results not in quiet contemplation, but the immediate calling out of answers from around the room. A recent attempt in a homily to convince this congregation that there is a ‘cost’ to discipleship was met with some indignation. The pastor was trying to come at the idea that following Jesus asks something of us, but several people piped up emphatically, “It doesn’t cost anything, not even one dollar!” “You don’t have to pay to follow Jesus!” I was kind of happy that they hadn’t ‘got’ the other point.

The symbols of the liturgy are somehow also greatly expanded in this setting – to real food and drink, for example, and the calling out at communion, “Wait, I want some of that juice”. We are all just hungry and thirsty communicants – neighbours – in the mysterious journey of life.

Neighbours live life side-by-side in the solidarity of a shared outlook. Good neighbours look out for each other, they lend and borrow without financial exchange, they welcome and acknowledge each other, and as that well-worn adage sings in conclusion, when this happens “…that’s when good neighbours become good friends”.

So, does this neighbourly volunteering of mine make me or them happier I wonder, thinking back to that radio report? It is undoubtedly a happy and rewarding time, but it’s equally sobering in its reminder that life can and does deal out many unhappy lots.

I can’t be sure how much of a measurable serotonin surge this small service achieves, but it surely widens my neighbourly smile.

Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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