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Volunteering and compassion soared during lockdown – but where is it now?

Chris Goswami unpacks the stats that show volunteering among non-faith groups was up considerably during lockdown. He asks: can Christians continue the momentum set by wider society and keep giving generously through this pandemic?

Do you remember those beautiful scenes of Italian neighbours singing to one another from their balconies? It was just one sign of the worldwide swell of human solidarity we saw in March to June, during lockdown. In our country we had the ‘weekly clap’ for our essential workers (how very British!) – another way of connecting, belonging and wanting to help.

As well as this show of empathy thousands offered to volunteer during lockdown. Many people felt they wanted to do something. Indeed, we had leaflets through our doors offering help from groups we didn’t know – with no other motive than “to love one another”. And, when the Government asked for people to step up and join a “volunteer NHS army”, a staggering 750,000 people responded.

Of course, on the flip side, there was panic buying, acts of selfishness and, it turned out that the government didn’t know what to do with 750,000 people anyway. But few would deny that something changed in our human spirit during lockdown. The result was a show of human solidarity that was nationwide, worldwide and sometimes viral.

Volunteering during lockdown

As human beings, times of crisis make us re-evaluate what is important to us. A recent survey of 4,500 UK adults commissioned by charity Faiths United crystalises the change in our outlook during lockdown, and it makes for interesting reading. 

The survey firstly confirms the trend that before lockdown people of faith (including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs) were far more likely to volunteer their time and money than people of no faith:

  • 72 per cent of religious people would help the vulnerable with shopping, compared with 46 per cent of the general population
  • 70 per cent of religious people would volunteer with a non-faith organisation, compared with 37 per cent of the general population
  • 66 per cent of religious people would give blood compared with 37 per cent of the general population

That’s not actually new. What is new is the fact that during lockdown the gap between religious and non-religious people all but disappeared, with the population as a whole stepping up their volunteering effort. Post lockdown the gap is beginning to widen once more.

This demonstrates that in times of crisis there is a shared – almost overwhelming – sense of social responsibility for everyone. But, once the sense of immediate danger passes, it is largely people of faith who continue.

Why are people of faith so good at giving?

Of course, huge numbers of non faith-based people volunteer time and effort week-in week-out, for example, running Scouts and Brownies groups or working in charity shops and foodbanks. But faith-based people do it more. Why? There are three main reasons.

Firstly, helping one another lies at the heart of all major world religions. The “golden rule” of all religions – to treat one another as we would wish to be treated – is backed by specific codes of conduct within each faith. For example, for Christians, God’s clear instruction to help the poor, the vulnerable, the needy, runs consistently from the Old Testament to both Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.  And even though this is a “command”, most of us do our volunteering gladly. It’s a simple show of gratitude to a loving God.

The second reason is a matter of practicality. Churches and faith-based organisations are set up to help and so are used to it. We have the infrastructure of buildings, small-groups, charitable contacts etc. that make it easier for us to step up. Hemant Mehta, the well-known “friendly atheist” writer and speaker, noted on the radio show Unbelievable? that the lack of an atheist equivalent to churches was a shame: “When things are going wrong in your life, churches are great at helping you through that stuff”, he said. Secular equivalents to churches have never managed to achieve this “one-anothering” as well as churches have. It’s worth noting, however, that the lack of infrastructure is one reason holding back people of no faith. When you provide the means to volunteer (such as the “volunteer NHS army”) they step forward.

But the third reason is the most interesting – and least obvious.

Giving is good for you!

People of faith have discovered over centuries that helping one another is not only good for society but good for our health. Setting out to help someone else gives us that feel-good factor of seeing a person better off because we managed to help them. It literally releases chemicals in our brains including dopamine.

There are many activities that can promote our health during difficult times such as Covid-19, including hobbies, physical exercise, and socialising (within the guidelines). These are all positive, intentional activities that promote wellbeing. But it’s when we direct our attention towards others that we get the greatest gain. Equally, we need to be good at receiving help. Many of us are not good at accepting help from others. It’s important we learn to do this – even asking for favours. It builds connection, it’s a win-win.

Jesus said that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Sometimes we narrow this down to some kind of brownie points in the sky when you die (excuse my crudeness). Certainly, there is truth in the idea of the “good and faithful servant” living well, but there is a much more immediate and impactful application of this verse that we often miss. Namely, it feels better to give, and it’s good for you – right now! So let’s push ourselves to keep being generous with our time, money and words, especially during these difficult months to come.

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the publisher 

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