I started volunteering at our local humane society this week. Not because I’m a good person. Because my twelve-year-old daughter wants to volunteer and she’s too young to do it without parental supervision. After the required orientation, we wore our long pants, closed-toed shoes, and volunteer T-shirts, and showed up for our first shift.
The deal at our humane society is you have to do at least four hours of “essential shelter help” before you get to work with the sweet little kittens and adorable dogs. Four hours of whatever they need done that isn’t working with the animals. (Has anyone tried this at church? Sorry, but you have to wash dishes/paint parking lot stripes/address envelopes/fold bulletins before you get to do anything related to theology or worship.)
So we did the four hours of mandatory essential shelter help because my daughter REALLY wants to work with the animals. But here’s my confession: I LOVE essential shelter help. You know that fantasy you have as a pastor? The one where you work at McDonalds or do data entry or hold the STOP/SLOW sign at a road construction site? THAT is what essential shelter help is!
On our first shift they taught us how to rotate laundry, which may be the single most satisfying activity I’ve ever done. Fold and put away blankets from the dryer. Clean off the lint screen. (Really, who doesn’t love cleaning off the lint screen?) Put towels from the washer into the dryer. Put dirty linens into the washer. And if you don’t know exactly how to do any of this—or if you forget or just don’t feel like remembering—there are signs EVERYWHERE. Signs that tell you exactly what to do.
These signs are not a luxury I have as a pastor. “Make this phone call first.” “Respond to this email and trash that one.” “Avoid this sermon illustration because someone will be offended and it’s not worth it.” “Go to this meeting; skip that one.” “Use these words when you pray with the person whose mother has just died.”
There are no signs at the church telling me how to do my job. How much bleach to put into each load to make sure things come out clean. Which basket to put things in so that everything ends up exactly where it is supposed to be. I’ve been a pastor for ten years and sometimes I still feel more clueless about how to do my job than I did ten minutes into essential shelter help.
After laundry rotation we got to fill up the dogs’ water bowls. Which is fun. If you love dogs. Which I do. Plus you are doing something very concrete to help another living creature, something basic and necessary for life. Filling water bowls is easy, it fills a concrete need, and it makes you feel good. Which is a somewhat elusive combination of elements in my role as a pastor.
Finally we did spot cleaning. Which is when you clean up any pee or poop in the dogs’ kennels. This might sound like a dirty, unappealing task, but I didn’t mind it at all. Just imagine: something stinks and you are able to identify exactly where the stench is coming from, clean up the mess, wipe down the floor . . . and just like that, all is restored to its proper order.
Here’s another beautiful thing about essential shelter help. Listen to this story: My daughter and I had finished our shift and put away the cleaning supplies. We were leaving the building, heading home for the day, when we saw one of the dogs lift his leg right there in his kennel and pee out about a gallon of hot yellow urine. And we just kept walking. Because we were done with our shift!
Last but not least, as a humane society volunteer, I don’t have to talk to people. . . . I mean, I do a little. Talk like: “Where should I put this?” or “How full should I fill this?” or “Don’t step in that.” But not touchy feely thinky talk like “What theme should we use for Advent this year?” or “I know this is a really hard time for you.” or “Let’s cut back a bit on the substitutionary atonement hymns, shall we?”. The reality is that most of the people who work and volunteer at the humane society are dog people and cat people—not necessarily people people. They are there because they also do not want to have to have touchy feely thinky talks with people.
Turns out that essential shelter help is a bit of a happy place for me. I’m not saying I want to quit being a pastor and start working at the humane society. (Most days, I don’t want to quit being a pastor for anything in the world.) But once in awhile it’s nice to have signs around that tell me what to do. It’s nice to focus on a concrete task and see the clean, orderly results of my labor. And it’s nice to just keep walking past a hot steamy mess when my shift is over.
Joanna Harader serves as pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, KS, and volunteers at the Lawrence Humane Society. She’s happy to be a small part of the good work done by both organizations in her community.
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