According to Webster, generosity is defined as “the quality of being kind, willing to give valuable things for others.” It is the direct opposite of closeness and selfishness. Synonyms include bountifulness and tenderheartedness. For me, it makes me think of fried chicken, shared smiles, and Birmingham, Alabama.
Last week I was lucky enough to go on my third Habitat for Humanity trip, this time to sweet home Alabama. While I could tell you about all the work we did on the house (I put down sub-flooring, ripped down a brick facade, and finished shingling the roof) or all the laughs me and my group had (there was a ton of singing and a ton of card games), my experience wouldn’t be half as meaningful without the story I’m about to tell you.
Fixing a house is great, but it’s the people whom you do it for that matter the most.
After almost 24 hours of traveling, we finally arrived to our temporary home Saturday afternoon. The leaders had told us to pack nice clothes the week prior, for we would probably be attending church on Sunday. There was a baptist church in the neighborhood we were staying in, about a 5 minute walk from our house. When the sunny Sunday morning rolled around, I found myself feeling anxious about attending a baptist service. What if we had no idea what to do? What if the parish rejected us? Would it be awkward that we’re there? Before I could even finish those doubtful thoughts, an older gentleman opened the door for us, with a look of pleasant surprise on his face. In his charming southern accent and the warmest smile, he simply asked “Well, who are you?”
He wasn’t the only one who was wondering. This particular baptist church had an older congregation, but one full of spirit. Practically everyone came up to ask about who we were and where we came from in the minutes leading up to the service. Even the pastor came over to greet us and tell us how happy he was that we were joining them. When they questioned our presence, they never said in a defensive or degrading tone. They genuinely wondered how a bunch of college aged Yankees ended up in their humble church, and celebrated our visit once we told them.
In the middle of the service, the pastor called up one of our leaders and she gave a small speech about our purpose and our affiliation with Habitat for Humanity. Immediately after, the pastor announced that they would treat us to a pizza lunch after the service. With all the encouragement and excitement from the congregation, it was hard to refuse.
We made our way over to the parish hall where 17 whole pizzas and countless bottles of soda awaited us. It was way more than our group could eat, but everyone assured us that whatever we didn’t eat, we could take home. Over pepperoni pizza, I talked to Jim and Pauline, a married couple of 63 years. They told me stories about how they met and all the adventures they’ve had with their kids and “grandbabies.” It was beyond heartwarming to see how in love they still were.
After packing up our pizzas and insisting that we take them home, the pastor invited us to a parish dinner that Wednesday night. There would be fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and collared greens, a “true southern meal” for us Northerners. They would even make us grits because most of us had never had them before. And of course because we were first time visitors, we wouldn’t have to pay a cent. Again, the excitement in their voices and true enthusiasm made it hard to refuse.
Wednesday rolled around. It was an absolutely beautiful day so we decided to walk to the church that evening. I was in the back of the group with a couple other people when a man in a car pulled up next to us (a very southern thing to do by the way). He commented that he hadn’t seen this many walkers in a long time and we explained to him where we were headed. Immediately his face lit up and he told us that he knew exactly who we were, we were the group from Villanova. He must have seen our confused faces because he went on to explain that the parish posted in their Facebook group that we were visiting. According to him, the whole town was “bragging about us.”
When we got to the church, we were welcomed with the same amount of warmth and joy as Sunday. The women serving the food were extremely generous with their portions, and, just like they promised, they gave us all a heaping helping of homemade grits. I ate my dinner (along with some sweet tea) and chatted with an older couple. They have been married two years now, even though they’ve known each other for over a decade. They told us a story of love lost and found again, making me believe that it really is never to late to find that one person.
I was almost finished with my meal when the older man asked me if I wanted a box to take my leftovers home. Before I could object, he was up fetching me a box, which he delivered with a satisfied smile. As soon as he put the box down, another woman next to me was taking it up to the women serving food, insisting that if I was going to take home my chicken, I would have to get some more grits as well. Not only did I get more grits, I got 4 more pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and 2 sweet rolls (which the ladies made me promise to keep secret!) Not only did these people feed us generously, they gave me at least 4 more meals worth to take home. On top of that (because this clearly wasn’t enough!) they made us 52 HOMEMADE cinnamon rolls and chocolate cupcakes for us to have the next day. Just because they wanted to.
As we were leaving (and repeatedly thanking them), an older gentleman with stark white hair and the kindest eyes insisted I take one of their bulletins. As I was folding it up to put in my pocket, a picture caught my eye. It was us! We had taken a picture on Sunday in front of the church’s sign, and there it was! In their bulletin with a full section describing our visit. Here’s an excerpt:
“In addition to blessing the owners of the home they were constructing, these students were a blessing to the members of the South Roebuck Baptist Church congregation. The sight of two rows of college students made many in this older congregation think about the “old days” when many young faces would not be out of the ordinary…Thank you Villanova University for the sweat and labor given to put a smile on the faces of a Habitat family and putting an even bigger smile on the faces of all the South Roebuck Baptist Church members.”
What made this experience so memorable and so humbling was not the fact that they featured us in their bulletin or fed us a week’s worth of food. It was the fact that they repeatedly and consistently thanked us for our presence. We were not directly serving them, but they acted as if we were. Talking with them, I felt like there was a constant flurry of thank you’s from us. Not only thanking them for their generosity, but because they complimented us and praised us so highly. This is a parish that does not have a ton of extra money to spend, but they went out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home. Beyond that, as much as we thanked them for welcoming us into their community, they thanked US even more for just being there. Being thanked for your presence is humbling. I’ve never been thanked for just being somewhere before.
Ultimately though, this experience taught me something about service. The culture in Alabama is definitely different than the lifestyle up North. They have their steadfast opinions about politics, religion, the “younger generation,” and they’re not afraid to share them. (One man blatantly told us that “Lincoln was a snake!” if that gives you any indication of our differences.) Even though some of their comments and beliefs may have brought us discomfort, we were able to find common ground, enter into this radically different culture with an open mind, and form true connections. It just goes to show you that you can always create relationships; that humans, no matter where we’re from or what we believe, we all have some things in common.
Service isn’t just about hammering some nails or putting up drywall. It isn’t categorized by how much you sweat or how many hours you sacrifice. Simply talking, listening, and connecting is service. Making the effort to get to know someone, giving them the chance to share their story, being generous with your time is a form of service. Just thanking someone for their presence makes a larger impact than you might realize. And that’s something that we can do every day, with anyone we meet. You don’t have to go on a break trip for that.
I’ll miss sweet home Alabama, where the skies are so blue.
Here’s to Southern values & generosity.