By Heather Coster, Greenlane Presbyterian, Auckland
The “Volunteering Unleashed” conference was an outstanding event and it was clear that the organisers had given a great deal of thought to the programme and to the quality of speakers invited. As I listened to the speakers, I found myself all the time trying to relate what they said back to the church community. My lasting impressions of the conference came from the keynote speakers and one of the discussion panels.
The panel discussion entitled “Our commonality – the language of volunteering” raised questions about the “foreignness” of the word volunteer to the cultures of the communities represented by Maori, Pacific Island and Somali members who made up the panel. The common thread seemed to me to be that being a member of such a community meant that you had a role and an understanding that this involved service in the community. The language they used to describe volunteering in the community was “serving with love and walking alongside”. Or put another way, “you can’t live in the community without serving”. Tied to this was a sense of belonging, of being valued and having a place in the community regardless of age. Joyce-Ann Raihania spoke of the way that children know they have a role to play on the marae at an event such as a tangi.
This emphasis on serving reminded me of a book I read recently: The Volunteer Revolution by Bill Hybels. Hybels writes of the impact on his life of the teaching of one of his college professors, an Armenian refugee who taught New Testament studies. His teachings on servanthood were always a challenge to his students. One day for example he posed the question “you want to really live?” and answering his own question he said –“then drape a serving towel over your arm”.1(p39). I thought of the opportunity we have in our respective church communities to serve both within the church community and the church community as a whole and as individual members to serve the wider community. Bill Hybels continuing the theme and quoting his teacher writes “’We all want to get to the top,’ he declared, ‘but Jesus said the way to the top is to become a faithful servant to the Father and a humble servant to one another.’” (p37)
We are familiar with the account of Jesus Christ’s example of this in John13:12-17 when he washes the disciples’ feet. Then he says,
I have set the example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.
Returning to the conference speakers, it was interesting the way that things that were said had relevance to the church community and the ways that it influences people and society. The opening speaker Steve Carden, author of New Zealand Unleashed started his presentation with a picture of St Columba church in its former location in the Pakuranga town centre – a place of significance for him because of the influence of the life of that community on his early life. Professor Margaret Tennant’s session on the history of volunteer organisations “Walking backwards into the future” highlighted the fact that over the years, churches in New Zealand have been as it were an umbrella for a whole collection of voluntary groups.The incredible world champion mountain runner Melissa Moon was inspirational in her address giving insight into the commitment, determination, discipline and physical and mental preparation required to compete and achieve at an elite level on the international stage. But then she related how for her, working voluntarily in a soup kitchen in Wellington was a powerful way of putting life back into perspective. She gave an example of a person whom she had met while doing this voluntary work whose life had been transformed in large part through the encouragement and recognition that Melissa has been able to provide.
The power of recognition and the ability to enable courage in another person’s life were key points in the outstanding closing address by Marcus Akuhata-Brown
If you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak then I suggest you take it. He is a born orator and a great example of a life transformed because someone recognised the potential within him, and took time to encourage him and walk alongside him. Surely this should be a characteristic of a church community. Marcus also stressed the strength of the intergenerational connectedness of a community. I think we have a real treasure in the midst of a church community with the diversity of ages – something we should not take for granted but for which instead we should be grateful. For example, the age range in my church family extends from two months to 95 years. I would hope that people feel they belong and that the way we serve one another and the communities in which we live and work is an example for the children in our midst.
In conclusion, this was an excellent conference. I would like to thank the Church for the opportunity that I was given to participate and to meet other attendees from churches around New Zealand, as well as the other conference participants and the speakers .The warm welcome and hospitality extended to us by the Assembly Office staff was much appreciated.
1 Hybels B. The Volunteer Revolution: Unleashing the Power of Everybody. Zondervan, Michagan. 2004. pp.37-39.