At a recent Seva talk in Delaware, an audience member asked the trickiest of questions: How can people get involved in the type of service that will do the most good—while bringing meaning to their lives? There are a thousand roads into service. But each of us is suited only for certain roles.

This is a tough issue, and I wasn’t prepared to address it. I don’t remember much about the answer I gave, except that it wasn’t very good. I stood in front of 75 people feeling a little naked—you know, exposed as the dummy that I really am. I did manage to say that, having finished my book, I’m wrestling with the same dilemma: What should I do now?

  Home not-so-sweet home in a Latino neighborhood on the Outer Banks.

Home not-so-sweet home in a Latino neighborhood on the Outer Banks.

Later, of course, I remembered what I should have said. There are indeed a few things you can do to find your way into the kind of service that will truly help others and also bring light and meaning to your life. So here in a nutshell is what I wish I’d told that group: 

More often than not, working in Seva requires you to move out of your comfort zone. That’s part of its beauty: It helps you grow in faith and compassion.

Gwen Mangine wasn’t looking for Seva when she went to a service at her church here on the Outer Banks one Sunday in 2005. But as she listened to a presentation on a children’s home in Haiti, a voice inside her told her she needed to go there on a mission trip. She went—and later moved to Haiti with her husband and children to run the home. The Mangine family now stands at 14, including a dozen Haitian kids. You can read about her experiences at www.mangine.org, as well as in my forthcoming book.

Gwen listened to what her heart was telling her and acted on it, even though it required her and her family to do a 180 with their lives. Something similar happened to Cynthia Snyder, a Michigan resident who went on a one-week trip delivering school supplies to poor communities in the Peruvian jungle. When it was time to return home, her heart hurt. So she signed up for a long volunteer stint with the organization Conapac (www.conapac.org) and later took a job with them. Finding your way into service is “about letting things come to you,” she told me. “You can’t have a five-year plan. You have to make a leap of faith.”

Bottom line: Don’t stress over it. Instead, be curious and willing to investigate just about anything. You’re embarking on a new adventure. And if you start into something and feel like it isn’t right, you can always change course.

While you’re waiting for the path to become clear, it’s helpful to practice Seva every day, simply by remaining open to the people you encounter. We live in a society that’s filled with pain. Anything we can do to ease that pain, even offering a few brief words to a stranger, will help.

As for service work close to home:

Be alert for opportunities, even if they don’t seem like something you’d really want to do. Take a chance and see where life leads you.

Many charities use volunteers only for the most rudimentary tasks, like answering phones. That’s frustrating for those of us who want to dive in and do something meaningful. But some will give increased responsibility to volunteers who are flexible, committed, and willing to work more hours. It’s a matter of patiently proving yourself.

Also, be on the lookout for people in your community who need help but are flying beneath the radar. They exist everywhere, as I learned all too well this winter.

Conventional wisdom on the Outer Banks is that the communities here have no dire poverty. Sure, there are people in danger of defaulting on their mortgages, and we have a small population of homeless men and women. But rundown neighborhoods and shanty towns? Nah. I’m ashamed to say that I believed this myth for far too long. It was easy, because they’re kept out of sight.

Impoverishment here comes in the form of ratty trailers that may look perfectly fine from the outside. They’re home to undocumented Latinos, many of whom pay above-market rent. Because the tenants are here illegally, they’re afraid to complain when landlords won’t fix their leaky roofs, rotting floors, and broken furnaces.

Does their shaky immigration status mean they should be sentenced to living in expensive, substandard housing? I don’t think so. Am I being called to help them—and if so, how? I’m still working that out. It wasn’t at all what I had planned for this phase of my life. But Seva rarely presents itself in a neat package.

I do speak some Spanish. So I guess I’ll venture down that path and see where it leads.

In future blogs I’ll post more ideas for finding your way into the kind of service that could nourish your soul.

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AuthorJan DeBlieu