When Serving Others Goes Awry

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When I was in high school, I was introduced to the idea of being a pen pal to a prisoner through Prison Fellowship International. I thought it would be easy enough to write to a prisoner, so I called the organization and asked for a connection. They matched me up with an elderly man who happened to share my Christian faith. A safe match, so they thought. Clyde and I wrote to each other for a few years. I visited him at the prison occasionally. Then, out of the blue, Clyde sent me a letter that revealed he had fallen in love with me. Prison Fellowship had hoped he was too old for that, but not so. In my last letter to Clyde, I wished him well but told him I would no longer be writing.

Six years later, I was living in Chelsea in Manhattan. My side of the street was lined with decent apartments, but the other side was filled with rows of SROs, or Single Room Occupancies. A single room contained everything: a toilet protruding from the wall, a twin bed, and a tiny sink. Charlie was an old man who lived in one of these SROs. I would often see him sitting on the ledge of his narrow window. Not having learned my lesson from Clyde, I befriended Charlie. At least once a week for over a year, I would help him get a little exercise by slowly walking around the block with him. He shuffled around on flat, flimsy shoes. I sometimes guided his arm to help him with a curb. My mom was suspicious of Charlie, but I insisted he was a poor old man needing company. Then one day, Charlie landed a big, wet kiss on me! I can still feel his scruffy, pudgy face on my cheek. To be clear, this was not merely a friendly kiss. When I protested, he went on to insist there was no reason we couldn’t have a romantic relationship, and thus, another round of service ended.

Why do I reflect upon these failures? Because I don’t really consider them as such. They didn’t end well, but they were certainly worthwhile for a time. Besides, I was doing what I believed was right. Although I should be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of those around me, I cannot control how those on the receiving end interpret my efforts. Something I can do, obviously, is consider a different line of service in the future—maybe something to do with innocent babies—but there’s no reason to feel awful for befriending these two men.  

Another example of service gone awry happened to a college friend I’ll call Craig. One evening while Craig was walking to his apartment, a homeless person caught his attention. Within thirty minutes of talking, Craig began to care for the guy and invited him to sleep on his couch for the night. In the morning, the homeless person was gone—along with Craig’s wallet. The wallet had been on the table right beside Craig’s bed, so the theft was especially violating. When Craig told me the story the next day, he was mad (and rightly so), but he was also ashamed. He felt stupid for being taken advantage of. I did my best to say, “No! The homeless person’s bad behavior isn’t your fault! You did a good thing. You offered a room and your trust to a person who was down and out. The shame does not belong on you.”

When we offer others a gift of any sort, it is up to the receiver of the gift to use it well or not. In service, we need to be careful not to blame ourselves for things we cannot help—although it may be wise to keep a watch on our wallets!

But what about those tragic reports of relief workers who are seriously injured or of missionaries who are slaughtered? The movie End of the Spear chronicles the story of a family whose father is slain while trying to bring peace to an Amazon tribe that was killing itself off. But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, nothing really ends when we think it does. None of us can predict the future or see things in light of eternity, so none of us is in a position to determine when a mission has truly failed. There are countless stories of the phoenix rising from the ashes, hope surviving in unlikely places, and people being affected long after the volunteers pack it up and go home.

Unfortunately, however, there are occasional attempts at service that are misguided, resulting in damage to a person or culture. No individual is perfect—not a single one of us can claim to have perfect motivations or exemplary behavior all of the time. Therefore, no organization that is made up of individuals is perfect (especially if the organization is largely composed of volunteers who come and go). We need to accept imperfection as a condition of existence. If we hold back from serving others because things aren’t just right, a lot of opportunities will be missed. 

This is not to say you shouldn’t do your homework and look for an organization with a stellar track record and also prepare yourself to be a good giver. You can read reviews and rankings of volunteer programs and nonprofits on and You can also read my new book called The Social Cause Diet to discover service opportunities that match your strengths and interests and lead to more satisfying and effective experiences.   

In summary, when serving, there are no guarantees that things will work out exactly as anticipated. Giving of ourselves does involve risk and the spirit of adventure. The unpredictability is part of the excitement. Keep your eyes open so you notice the pleasant surprises that come your way, and keep your wits about you when unpleasant ones arise. The flexibility you gain from being involved in experiences that cannot be perfectly controlled or orchestrated will enhance all areas of your life.

First published in "The Social Cause Diet: Find a service that feeds your soul"


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