WHY WOULD ANYONE under 30 elect to give up a year of their life to cook and clean or listen to the troubles of a homeless man or woman, in return just for pocket money and the strictures of living in a community?
Put the question to Mary (25), Ben (20), Steven (19), Peter (19) and Joe (18) and you'll probably be met with gales of helpless laughter. For it is a concern that is voiced to them nearly every day and it is a question that has no neat answer.
Or not one that really satisfies an outsider.
All of them are coming to the end of a year intake of the Vincentian Volunteers, an offshoot of the Vincentian tradition, in giving a year's service to the needy and poor.
This group is based at Damascus House, Mill Hill, north London and from this retreat house they either work at other Vincentian projects or on the Damascus House Youth Retreat Team. In Scotland and Willesden, north London, more youthful volunteers are doing similar unsung work in the Vincentian tradition.
Programme organiser Sr Joan Moriarty is rightly anxious to stress the contribution all her volunteers are making in their local communities.
This autumn will see another batch of 20 recruits who have impressed a selection panel with their desire to experience community living and help other people. They have in common youth
ful ideals, a willingness to serve a love of people and above all perhaps, a sense of humour!
Says Sr Joan: "This is an opportunity for young people to make a commitment by living, praying and working in community. Many of our volunteers have a limited amount of time to give and, in this decade of evangelism, we try to meet their needs. They want to deepen their faith too."
Good humour and love of fellow people are certainly needed by Ben Sloper who works at Carlisle Place in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral cooking at the senior citizens lunch club and cleaning at The Passage Day Centre.
For the lunch club customers this central point in their day is a welcome haven, a place to enjoy a good meal, to enjoy the company of newly-made friends and to see young faces.
Unlike Ben, Steven D'Souza, Peter Fitch and Joe Kennedy have no commuting hours, they stay at Damascus House, welcoming and working with hundreds of children and teenagers who either come for themed retreats or prayer days. One day a week they each get away from their base to work elsewhere Steven with a group of Alzheimer patients, Joe to St Vincent's primary school and Peter joins Mary Heron at the Luton Day Centre.
As the senior member of the team Mary has already had a taste of long living away from home. She graduated in theology and history from St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill. Her student experience of living on a limited income has given her the understanding to work with men and women who regard their Luton Day Centre as their lifeline.
They get a main meal but they get practical help too in budgeting, or claiming benefit entitlements.
But the experience has other benefits. The volunteers themselves have discovered they have developed in the most unexpected ways: Steven has discovered he can talk freely to a great mix of people.
Peter felt "petrified" by the prospect of going to Luton Day Centre but came to look forward to it; Mary has discovered untapped reserves of patience, how to crochet and write italic style skills taught her by a client; Ben has learnt to cook a three course meal without going into a flat spin.
When summer came and it was time to say goodbye perhaps it was not surprising to know that Ben has opted for a vocation with the Vincentians to train as a Brother. Steven as a priest, and Peter as a priest with the Diocese of Brentwood.
Mary is embarking on pastoral ministry study in Ireland, and Joe to college.
They all agree this year of grace has been a useful pause in their lives, a time to think about their future in a way no other experience would have served.