At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 16, I showed up at the spiritual life office with a coffee in my hand and bags under my eyes to participate in George Fox’s MLK Serve Day. If I’m being completely honest, part of me regretted signing up for the event in the first place. I value my sleep, and I hadn’t gotten much of it the night before. All I really wanted to do was climb back into my warm bed and cherish the quiet for a few more hours.

But I overcame the temptation to do so. Instead, I joined 25 other students who were selfless enough to sacrifice their day off to serve God and the community. We loaded into vans to make the trek to Portland. At first, all I wanted to do was sleep, but slowly I began to enjoy myself as I talked with peers and watched the morning fog fade outside my window. 

Before I knew it, we pulled into the parking lot of Ventura Elementary School in western Portland. There we met with the nonprofit organization SOLVE, a group dedicated to preserving the nature and neighborhoods of Portland. We joined dozens of other volunteers as we walked around the neighborhood picking up various types of trash. While this may not sound like a particularly appealing activity, I actually enjoyed myself. It felt good to be helping others, even if I was just picking up some forgotten candy wrappers and soda bottles.


After we finished picking up trash, we headed to CityTeam Portland for lunch. CityTeam is another nonprofit organization committed to providing shelter and resources for the houseless. But CityTeam doesn’t stop there; they also help the houseless get back on their feet.

While we ate lunch, we heard from a few guest speakers who had experienced the power of CityTeam’s operations firsthand. Jack, Austin and Mitch all had vastly different stories, but they shared one thing in common: They all came to find Jesus and a renewed hope for their lives at CityTeam. Everything they had to say was authentic and real. They weren’t putting on a show for us; they were simply telling their truth. I quickly realized that these three men carried the Holy Spirit within their hearts. It was inspiring to see. 

After lunch, we went on a walk-about in downtown Portland to give out hot cocoa, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and socks to the houseless. I grew up walking the streets of Los Angeles with my family, and I’ve had my share of bad experiences with inappropriate and violent people. Suffice to say, I was nervous about how our walk-about would go. When we started, I was on edge and ready to run if things went south. But by the end of our walk, I was wishing that we had more time to spend with these people. 

handful of trash in student's hands

As my group and I walked the streets of Portland, we met so many wonderful houseless people. We struck up conversations with them as we passed out resources, and many of them were just as eager for conversation as they were for the resources we were offering. 

About 20 minutes into our walk, I ended up meeting a middle-aged man named John. He was tall with a kind face and rectangular glasses, and he greeted us as we passed him on the sidewalk. We quickly offered him hot cocoa, which he readily declined (he was drinking chocolate milk at the time), but he started a conversation with us nonetheless. I quickly learned that we shared the same hometown – Huntington Beach, California. I was absolutely dumbfounded. What were the odds that I would find someone from my hometown on the streets of Portland, 1,000 miles away from where I grew up? I began to ask him about his childhood, and he explained how he loved to surf in the Californian sun when he was a kid. When I asked where he liked to surf the best, he began to mention beaches and places I know – places I grew up in.

student picking up trash on side of road

The whole experience was a wake-up call for me. In our contemporary society, we often tend to view houseless people as less. We immediately assume that it was their own poor choices that resulted in their homelessness, or that they are drug addicts and substance abusers who lack ambition and competence. I will admit that I subconsciously held this view of houseless people after some of my experiences in Los Angeles. 

But John wasn’t like that at all. He wasn’t less. In fact, I would say that he was quite whole. He was kind, engaging, compassionate, competent and full of life. When I looked at John, I didn’t see a houseless man with no future; I saw a child of God who was worthy, even if he was down on his luck. 

three students smiling with trash in hand

That is the power of service. MLK Serve Day gave me an opportunity to face my own subconscious biases and prejudices, and to see my fellow human beings as God’s beloved, no matter their earthly status. MLK Serve Day reminded me to love my neighbor. It showed me that there are more important things in this life than getting a couple of extra hours of sleep on a holiday. 

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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