One by one by one
Just after I graduated from college, I worked with homeless youth in Denver. I would spend every afternoon out on the 16th Street Mall, handing out granola bars and socks. I’d listen, troubleshoot, and provide resources. I had amazing conversations and developed great relationships, but – especially in those first months – didn’t feel like I was making any difference in these kids’ lives.
I remember sitting down with my supervisor, articulating my feelings of ineffectiveness and just despairing at the brokenness of our world. He listened carefully, and then turned to the corkboard next to his desk and took down a piece of paper and handed it to me. It was one of those documents shaded and messy from being repeatedly copied, with holes from thumbtacks. It said these words, from Thomas Merton:
. . . do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
I read it and felt enormous grace, like a weight had been lifted. I could let go of the idea that I could fix all the problems. Instead, I could just be present to and for and with those young people, and this, in itself, had such value. It was enough to commit to people, to the specific kids who I had already grown to love, and trust that somehow, God would bring good through us.
I have found myself looking at that quote on its repeatedly copied paper a lot in the last twenty years. Merton’s words still give grace in those moments when despair gets the best of me, or I feel powerless against the enormous challenges and struggles in our community and world. Instead of giving in to hopelessness, we can do the simple act of investing in people, and through those relationships, built one by one by one, God’s goodness and love will become realized in our world.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:1).