barry-lee-story2.jpgWhen I arrived at Candler knowing that it required students to participate in two years of Contextual Education, little did I know that my time at Toco Hills Community Alliance (THCA) would be such a rewarding and invigorating experience. The nonprofit organization provides free groceries, clothes, and lunch to those who are experiencing homelessness, and helps individuals and families in need in the northeast Atlanta area.

I chose THCA because it afforded me an opportunity to serve food insecure persons in the midst of a global crisis. I realized that God’s mandate that we must “love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves” applied with or without a raging pandemic—people must eat healthy food on a regular basis.

THCA is run by its executive director the Rev. Dr. Lisa Heilig, known to my cohort group affectionately by the moniker RDML (Rev. Dr. Momma Lisa). She has nurtured a culture of service to the food insecure that demonstrates the ethos of how to not only serve those seeking physical nourishment, but also how to do so in the spirit of loving service. Perhaps the greatest lesson that I have learned is how to be a true servant-leader. RDML made it clear that in order to lead in ministry, one must first learn to serve. Because she was always an exemplar of how to do this, it became easy for me to do likewise.

The other revelation that I took from my year of volunteering is how to be reflective in whatever you do in service to humanity. We must always be willing to ask ourselves: “How could I be more useful to humanity and what lessons did I learn from my engagement with others?” This lesson came through in our reflection group that met weekly. In particular, there was one session in which each of us were asked to share a meaningful encounter with a client or fellow volunteer.

When it was my turn to reflect, I told of the time when RDML asked me to work with a fellow volunteer, a young man who seemed to be personally struggling in ways that were visible but without an obvious explanation. Initially, I did not realize that this pairing was lovingly strategic by RDML, who hoped that I might be able to find a common bond and perhaps offer comfort to this young man. As it turned out, this volunteer ultimately left THCA and I don’t know if I was of any assistance or not. However, the takeaway was that when we are in relationship with others, our common humanity requires that we lovingly reach out to them with care and sensitivity and let God do the rest.

This sort of social obligation to my neighbor was not anything that I anticipated when I signed up for duty at THCA, but I will remember and treasure the experience for the rest of my life. I realized that serving at a social service agency like a food bank is not so much about the provision of food, but about nourishing the souls of those we encounter, whoever they might be, and that we must be willing to extend ourselves unselfishly for the benefit of others. To me, this is the purpose of community, and embodies the art of loving a neighbor.

Top photo: Derick McKinney on