How do we invite young adults into voluntary service today? As director of The Shalom Project in Lancaster, Pa., I hear this question from time to time — often as a lament for the ways service has changed since the draft era. From the 1940s to the early 1970s, alternative service for conscientious objectors was a tangible way to serve others while acting on pacifist convictions. Those experiences shaped two generations of Mennonites.
Young adults today carry heavy burdens of student debt and cost of living, coupled with societal pressure to maximize their earning potential. While fewer young adults are participating in service programs, I meet many who care deeply about serving others. They are seeking to connect service with their sense of vocation, place and community.
Here is what I am noticing:
A life of service has to do with vocation.
When we serve others out of our gifts, passions and sense of call, work and service become integrated. Voluntary service can act as an incubator rather than a gap or delay in a career because it helps young people discover opportunities for service in their field.
Rae Ann Miller graduated college with a degree in math, taught for two years and then came to The Shalom Project looking to use her math skills to do good in some other way. We established a service placement for her with the Center for Regional Analysis. She is spending a year doing data analysis on housing stock in Lancaster. The goal is to alleviate a shortage of affordable housing. Rae Ann says, “I’m learning that the way we interpret data can either hide or highlight the inequities experienced by marginalized people. I love using my math skills to work with data in ways that overcome biases.”
A life of service has to do with place.
To be in tune with the needs of our place, we need to learn its stories, demographics and history. We need to listen to voices on the margins.
The Shalom Project’s participants come from all over the United States and beyond. We aim to help them become well acquainted with Lancaster, so that they develop the ability to see the needs around them no matter where they live.
Olivia Smucker came to The Shalom Project with a desire to use her communication skills to benefit others. She spent her year serving with the United Way of Lancaster County, doing journalism work for a local news website that highlights community news and nonprofit organizations. Olivia’s Shalom year fell during COVID restrictions, and at the time Lancaster County did not have a health department or health advisory council. The United Way’s news website became a critical source of COVID-related information to the community. Olivia’s research and writing met a need that was unique to Lancaster.
A life of service has to do with community.
Many Shalom Project participants come with a desire not only to serve but to live in community. They share household responsibilities, check in with each other, pray together and hold each other accountable to self-care practices and healthy boundaries.
Supportive community can help us find balance and wholeness. If we stretch ourselves too thin, our friends remind us that God’s dreams for the world do not depend on our ability to do it all. If we need a nudge, they help us rediscover the ways we are empowered to join in God’s work. At all times, our community reminds us we are not alone in the hard work of being other-oriented.
How do we invite young adults into a life of service today? I believe it has to do with integration: using our unique gifts, in a particular place, within a supportive community. This follows Jesus’ example: He operated out of a deep sense of self — his vocation, you might say. He had eyes to see the needs around him. He surrounded himself with people who could support him, albeit imperfectly.
Service, then, is not merely a gap-year experience or something to check off a spiritual to-do list. It is a lifestyle oriented toward others. It is something all of us can do, at any age.
Nathan Grieser directs The Shalom Project, a voluntary service program and intentional community of young adults in Lancaster, Pa. Founded by several Mennonite congregations in 2015, The Shalom Project is a conference-related ministry of Atlantic Coast Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA and is connected ecumenically in Lancaster.