Where there’s help

May 12, 2010 | 31 comments

A few months ago I was dropping some of my kids off at our parish’s Mother’s Day Out program, and a woman approached me in the hall.

“I need help, ” she said.

I wasn’t sure what she meant. “The registration office is down that way, ” I said, pointing to the Mother’s Day Out coordinator’s office.

A gaggle of moms and toddlers walked between us, pausing our conversation, and I noticed that she looked tired. Her body language was tense. It dawned on me that when she’d said she needed help, she probably wasn’t referring to Mother’s Day Out.

“No, I’ve been out of work for a while…” she said. She glanced over her shoulder. “This is a church, right?”

I finally got it. I ushered my kids into their classes, then walked her toward the building where our parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society is headquartered. I told her about their mission and the type of help they offer, and gave her the names of some of the people I knew who are usually there. Most Catholic churches have a SVDPS office, where anyone of any religious belief system can go to get anything from food to clothing to help with home repairs to assistance paying their bills, with no strings attached. The lady seemed immensely relived, and thanked me before she headed over to the building.

It was such a simple exchange, but the moment stayed with me. What had just transpired felt new and right and somehow expected yet unexpected. I thought about it as I headed back to my car, and it finally occurred to me:

This is so different from atheism.

One of the biggest changes in my day-to-day life since my conversion is simply being part of a church community. The heart of the community is the church itself, the sacred space where God himself dwells. Out from that flows a thriving system of programs and ministries where the people of the church reach out to one another and to our neighbors throughout the community. There are groups who visit people in nursing homes, take food or communion to the home-bound, run errands for people without transportation, help women in crisis pregnancies, visit inmates in jail…and those are just a few. (A quick glance at our parish website shows dozens of ministries at our church alone.)

There are lots of similar groups in the secular world, of course, and I know plenty of atheists who are generous, giving people. Even I occasionally did things to help others when I was an atheist.

What’s different about being a believer and being part of a church is not the fact that there are organizations that help others per se; it’s how very intimately the concept of serving others is woven into the fabric of daily life.

When I was an atheist I volunteered to tutor disadvantaged children. I gave money to the homeless and donated food to soup kitchens. The difference between then and now is that, back then, I saw those activities as an add-on to life. I had a certain set of things that I did to make my life well-rounded and fulfilling, and “helping others” was a bullet point on the list, somewhere around “traveling” and “advancing in my career.”

But becoming a Christian radically changed the list. “Serving others” is no longer one bullet point among many; it’s the overarching aim of everything else on the list.

I’ve written before about how one of the most worldview-shattering truths I discovered in Christianity was the notion that living for yourself is not a valid option, and won’t make you happy anyway. When I first read the Catechism I was surprised to see that it actually had an answer to the age-old question of “What is the meaning of life?” To know, love and serve God. And how do we do that? The short answer is, by loving and serving others. That’s why we were created. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s how we find the lasting peace we all crave.

Saying that the meaning of life is to serve others doesn’t mean that we run ourselves ragged or that we never take time to relax — after all, you can’t be of much help to anyone else if you’re not recharging your own batteries — but it does mean that that is our final aim. It’s not one of many things we do; it’s the only thing we do, the only thing worth doing at all.

I have to admit that I was surprised that this works. When I first heard this idea I was skeptical — how could you possibly be happy if your life wasn’t centered around what you wanted to do? But what I hadn’t counted on was the power of Christ: this whole concept wasn’t invented by people, and it’s not fueled by human efforts. I am far, far from living it out perfectly, of course, but when I do cooperate with God’s grace to throw myself into having an other-focused life, I find a power and a strength and a palpable peace within me that does not come from myself.

Throughout the ages churches have been synonymous with charity and service. Even I knew it on some subconscious level when I was an anti-Christian atheist. A friend and I once had a conversation about what we’d do if we found ourselves hungry and lost, with no money or friends or family to turn to. After thinking about it, I said, “I guess I’d go to a church.” I knew I could probably knock on the door of any local Christian community and get some food and water, maybe even some money to help me get by until I could get on my feet. I didn’t have a high opinion of Christians, but I was aware that, for whatever reason, helping others was a foundational part of their belief system.

I didn’t get it. I never did understand why churches had such strong reputations for being places to go for help, especially considering that plenty of Christians weren’t exactly the nicest people in the world. I came up with a bunch of convoluted theories, but none of them fully explained it.

It wasn’t until that exchange with the lady in the hall that it finally clicked. That morning, I hadn’t been there to work at a charitable organization. I wasn’t doing some special activity to give back to the community. I was just dropping my kids off at preschool. Yet it was a perfectly natural course of events to end up offering help in some small way to a person in need. It’s so much a part of the Christian life that there’s an entire building next to our place of worship dedicated solely to that cause.

As I strolled back to my car, I passed the main church building. I looked at the stained glass windows, the twelve-foot oak doors, and knew that Christ was present just on the other side. None of my theories had been correct when I was an atheist. Now that I’m a Christian myself, I understand why.

Christianity did not become a religion of service because Christians think it’s amusing to be involved in charitable causes. It’s not some tradition that developed due to complicated socioeconomic forces acting on this religion’s adherents throughout the millenia. It’s not that Christian are just naturally nicer people than anyone else — a lot of us aren’t even great at living out our ideals a lot of the time.

What happened on the macro level to make Christian churches known through the world and throughout history as places of refuge for people in need is the same thing that happens on the micro level of the human heart when one becomes a Christian. Simply put, it comes down to this: where there is Christ, there is help.


  1. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    I needed this reminder-thanks!

  2. deb


  3. The Frat Pack + Me

    Awesome post! Thank you~

  4. Kate J

    Oh bless you for putting it so well to words. I especially appreciated the part about seeing service as an "add on", because I think I've done that myself, and I continue to try to be better. I always tell my kids to look and "see what needs to be done", so it is to follow my own advice! What can I do to make the world a better place for this person, in this particular situation, at this moment in time? There are so many problems and needs all around – what little thing can I do to alleviate, rather than add to, the negatives?

  5. WhiteStone

    " "What is the meaning of life?" To know, love and serve God. And how do we do that? The short answer is, by loving and serving others."

    I copied the above sentences from your post, for they are the very heart of your message.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Leila

    Jennifer, you describe very well the intimate fabric of loving care that the Church is to anyone in need.

    What I think is so beautiful is that even more than this very important work, the contact that a very discouraged person — woman, mother– has with someone like you — a person, woman, mother — who is NOT discouraged, who bears Christ within her — this is the contact point of love.

    No matter what tangible help she received that day, her interaction with you — a kind person who wanted to help even without understanding at first — is what I am sure remains in her subconscious. It's a message of hope! And this is the action of the Church — even more than the ministry we support with our cash — that we submit to when we become members of His Body, whether we know it or not.

    God bless you!

  7. Headless Mom

    The only thing I disagree on is that Christ in within the walls of the church. Because He is in us, he is always outside the church…in all we do and all we say. I continually fall short of representing him in a way that is worthy, but that doesn't mean I can try to HELP where and when needed.

  8. Julie C

    absolutely wonderful, keep on giving your insights, you have a lovely lense through which you view the world. Thanks, Julie

  9. Bethany Hudson

    I particularly love the balance the RCC has between serving others and personal holiness, and both concepts are held entirely secondary to adoration of the Lord. Every other faith I have explored seems to put too much emphasis on either service or personal holiness, and things got out of balance. Many of them even seemed to stress one of these concepts even over due praise to God (not by what was said or purportedly believed but by where emphasis, time, and resources were allocated).

    Ah, so many reasons I love being Catholic!


  10. Scott Johnston

    Thank you! Wonderful post. You speak to the heart of the fact that striving to live with the help of grace an authentic Christian life, is transformative. Doing so is conformative–conforming us more to Christ. It touches the very core of what it means to be a human being in relationship with others. It opens our heart, hopefully, to growing in the capacity to love. And this cannot but leave us changed–changed in a way that also brings a deeper more lasting interior peace.

    And I say this, not suggesting that I do this well myself. May Christ help us all to allow our hearts to be more like His.

  11. Anonymous

    Why do you still define yourself by your atheism? When are you going to let go of that? Why is everything a comparison game between atheism and Catholicism? When are you going to start being a Catholic and stop being an atheist who is now Catholic?

  12. Maiki

    Anonymous, the blog is called "Conversion Diary". I assume part of the focus is seeing how Jen's assumptions and perspectives on life are changing as part of her conversion. Just like there are many "cultural Catholics" or "culturally Jewish" people who are atheist (or other religions) and find that their assumptions of their younger self shape their life post-conversion — and might even define themselves with those labels for years, I assume this is also a starting point in many of Jen's musings. This is why she has a blog focused on being a "conversion diary".

  13. Nikki

    Anonymous, a convert has no option to remove him or herself from the frame of reference that comes with actively choosing Catholicism. We have a mindset that's different from "cradle Catholics" – I, like Jennifer, know exactly what it's like to be brought up believing that there is no higher power and that, when things get rough, you've got nobody to count on but yourself.

    And it's a terribly sad existence.

    Being an atheist who is now Catholic isn't a crutch, the way you describe it. It's a blessing; it's a very special sort of lens through which one views, in a unique way, the beauty of faith. It humbles us in love and gratitude.

  14. White

    This is insightful, sensitive and beautiful.The question of SERVICE without the expectation of any sort of remuneration is a biggie. It is one of the values which separates Christians from the
    secular world most markedly I think.
    from what I read on your blog, it's clear that your decision to convert to Christianity was not only life changing but all encompassing. Your are not a 'luke warm' Christian, but one which is 'steaming hot'.
    Anonymous, please consider that Jennifer has called this blog, 'Conversion Diary' which , by implication alone would allude to the fact that comparisons between behaviour before conversion would
    automatically be compared to those after conversion.
    Jennifer comes across as all Christian with reference to her past belief system used as a teaching tool, perhaps for those atheists who have doubts or questions to ask about their own conversion.
    Your posts never fail to express God's grace Jennifer. Thank you.

  15. TaraS

    Oh, Anonymous at May 12, 2010 12:47 PM….always good for a laugh.

    One of the great things about Christianity is that we care less about the opinion of other people when we start caring more about the opinion of God.

    In other words: God bless anonymous critics; may they get over their misdirected anger and be very happy people.

    • Simon

      god has no “opinion” it’s all in your mind. Your only honest point was you care less about other unless it meets your approval, not your god’s…You only do good to serve god and not neccesarily to serve others but to please that god…So you can get to your little everlasing life…The same one where unbelievers aren’t allowed unless they get through the roadblock called Jesus..If they don’t that ever so loving god sends them to the ever so loving hell.

      All that makes me angry is your arrogance and don’t tell me that you don’t ever feel anger either towards those that don’t follow your dogma.

  16. Marie

    Thank you for this beautiful post. Whenever I know someone who is sad or is having a problem, I always remind them the reason why we are here on earth. "To know God, to love God and and to serve God". It sounds so simple and yet it can be very hard to comprehend. Once, you get it though, it just makes life more meaningful and peaceful. At least I have found it so. God bless you!

  17. Anonymous

    Actually, I was asking Jennifer, not anyone else.

    I know the origins of this blog.

    I just wonder, if one is really and truly Catholic, why one would continue to define oneself first as an atheist and then as a Catholic.

    At one point does one let the atheism go?

    Hardly angry, seriously curious, don't have a blog, so have to post anonymously, TaraS. Why are you so snarky and snide?

    Jennifer has chosen not to answer and has allowed others to speak for her. We'll have to leave it at that.

  18. Ray Ingles

    One of the biggest changes in my day-to-day life since my conversion is simply being part of a church community.

    A lot of people hang onto the community even after they lose faith. It is awfully cool in a lot of ways.

  19. Abigail

    Awesome Post! You are on FIRE!

  20. Kim D. in WI

    One of my favoritest posts, ever! You rock!
    And as for the "atheist" frame of reference…duh…how else could you possibly explain things so as to highlight the differences. Right?

  21. Amanda M.

    Amazing. Beautiful post.

  22. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jen, I had lunch with an amazing priest the other day and I mentioned you to him, and we had a conversation about the atheist viewpoint vs. Christian. We talked about how many atheists aim to be people of good will, but how it's really just an action that in the end makes that person feel better, feel good that they're doing something for someone else. Naturally, we will collect good feelings when we are good to others. But in the Christian life, there's more. We have our eyes set on eternity, and so everything we do is in light of the fact that we are on our way somewhere, and we know that the way we live our lives here is paving the way to who we will be in the next life. In that way, it is sort of self-serving. Not that our good acts will get us into heaven, but through them, through responding to others in need, we are transforming our hearts to Christ's, and when it's our time to pass on, we will have a much better chance of recognizing the face of God when we see it. The more we strive to live a holy life pleasing to God, the less of a haze we'll have around us when it's time for us to meet our Creator. I really believe this is what our earthly lives is all about — preparation for that next life. Atheists are missing out on a significant part of their own stories. I'm so glad you can be a light to those who trod where you once were. It is not a prison sentence to be a Christian. We are not bound by our life in Christ. We are freed by it!

  23. Lisa V.

    Yeah! Just so excited to see more and more people who are part of the church talking about how important it is to serve others. I'm not sure if it's just God trying to get my attention but nonetheless this is a good thing. Stirs up people like myself to remember what God expects of us and what our purpose is. Love your blog.

  24. Fieryhalo

    Serving is not always easy but I love it that everything you experience seems to remind you of Jesus. 😀 This past year, my family gave up Christmas to serve in Vietnam. CBN interviewed my dad at the outreaches we did there: http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2009/December/Vietnam-Allows-Large-Public-Worship-Service/ The Catholic church is huge over there but we were the only Americans. It felt like heaven to see that many people get saved. Serving others isn't easy but it's worth sacrificing any comfort to help others. I love your heart, Jen.

  25. Tea

    what caught my eye was that you read the Catechism?! I've been raised Catholic, meaning you are so much more knowledgable about our faith. I'm a new follower of your blog and you are such an inspiration 🙂

  26. My Chocolate Heart

    I continue to be inspired by you, by your conversion story and your unabashed expression of faith.
    God bless you. Keep doing what you're doing.

  27. Anonymous

    Headless Mom, Christ is in the church. Jesus is physically present in the Tabernacle that is in the church building. In all Catholic churches everywhere, Jesus' body, blood, soul and divinity are literally present in the church.

    Alicia (sorry to be Anon. I do not blog)

  28. Anonymous

    This was really nice, Jennifer, and highlighted an aspect of the Christian/Catholic call to selfless, sacrificial giving that I did a poor job of bringing out in my discussion with Ray under another post of yours. It really is supposed to compose your entire life, your entire attitude toward everything, big and small. Not an add-on to your to-do list. List-maker that I am, I'm still working on that one. 🙂

    To have Jesus Really Present is such a source of strength. I wish all Catholics could find the internal centering and affirmation that comes from regular Eucharistic Adoration.

    In one of the most memorable talks about the Eucharist that I've heard, the speaker discussed this amazing thing, this God-King that comes to us in such a humble and fundamental way. And went on to remind us that after Communion we become "living Tabernacles", taking Jesus out into the world – again, hopefully in a humble and fundamental way, ourselves now the bread to be broken. It was such a powerful image to me! Your post captures that really well, I think. Thanks again for sharing.


  29. Anonymous

    "where there is Christ, there is help"

    So true… Brought me to tears

  30. Ed

    Enjoyed reading this a lot.
    Made me think, also, that as crucial as organized charities are (and i and others could do far more), spontaneous charity (as you showed the woman here) is just as important.

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