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Monday, 24 August 2015

The "Imagine" Reality Check: Volunteerism

Volunteer work is defined as valuable work done by a person who is not paid.  He or she chooses to give time to help a particular, often charitable, cause.   The concept of voluntary labour is not a world-wide phenomenon.  Even though not everyone in the West participates in volunteer work, there is a sense that such labour is important to society as a whole.  How long as volunteer work been part of Western culture?  I would venture to say that it parallels the spread of Christianity.
   The ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers was marked by giving of themselves for the benefit of others.  In his parable of the sheep and the goats [1], Jesus implies that the natural outworking of true faith in God would include giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and solace to the prisoner.  All of these actions would be done without expecting anything in return, not even the notice of God as they respond with, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you , or thirsty and give you something to drink?”
   That volunteer work is a legacy of Christian faith in the West can be seen even in the 2014 World Giving Index produced by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation.  Surveys were taken asking people around the world if they had given their time to an organization in the past month.  Among the 24 countries where one-third or more people had done volunteer work, the following was also true:

7 countries are considered part of the West (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa,* USA)

7 non-Western nations have 54% or more of the population affiliating with Christianity (Guatemala, Jamaica, Kenya, Liberia, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago)

4 are former Soviet bloc countries where subbotniks, [sometimes forced] free labour on Saturdays has been part of the culture since it was introduced by the Communists in 1919 (Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan)

4 are Southeast Asian countries that had recently been hit by natural disasters, so the numbers may have been higher than a typical year (Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka)

1 has a population 50 % Muslim, 40% Christian (Nigeria)

1 is a largely Buddhist country (Mongolia)

   The most striking information about volunteerism comes from a country that has officially endorsed atheism for 66 years.  The People’s Republic of China has one of the lowest rates of volunteerism, at 6% of respondents [2].
   About fifteen years ago, we hosted a pair of young adults who were part of a Canada-World Youth Exchange.  These two girls (one Canadian, one Russian) had strikingly different attitudes towards the volunteer work that was part of their program.  The Canadian girl who was second generation East Indian considered the volunteer work at a daycare as valuable for its own sake and because she wanted to pursue child care as a career.  In contrast, the Russian girl complained about having to work without pay as she sorted clothing and played with children at a women’s shelter.  Her country may have had social service organizations, but with exclusively paid staff.  To her, volunteering felt like exploitation.  I realize that today in my province a significant portion of high school students may likewise feel exploited that they must volunteer for 40 hours in order to graduate, but I suspect that most of the adults in their lives will help them to see the benefits.
   One last remark about volunteering’s connection to Christian faith comes from a Canadian report entitled “Religion, Participation and Charitable Giving,” published in 1999.  Statistics were gathered comparing the level of participation (weekly, monthly, never) in religious services and the amount of time spent volunteering.  The author found a staggering connection between faithful attenders and volunteer work:

“These weekly attenders who volunteer amount to only 9 per cent of all Canadians, but they account for 39 per cent of all hours volunteered. They are in a class by themselves.” [3]

   When people imagine there’s no religion, do they realize that voluntary labour to help the vulnerable would take a serious hit?

[1] This parable can be found in Matthew 25: 31-46, Holy Bible
[2] The entire report can be found at https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf_wgi2014_report_1555awebfinal.pdf
[3] The full report can be found at http://www.imaginecanada.ca/sites/default/files/www/en/giving/rp_1997_religion_participation_and_charitable_giving_en.pdf

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