Why Serve? (2006) - M. Jean Heriot
The human condition is one of paradoxes. We live, yet we know we will die. We hope while at the same time we fear. Similarly, our motives for service are paradoxical — we want to help others but our society also teaches us to look out for number one. We are profoundly social animals, needing to be with each other and to give and take, while at the same time we are profoundly selfish by nature, seeking to insure our own survival or the survival of our kin. When we hold the social and the selfish in tension, we come close to the essence of what makes us human. We humans love to heap gold and silver upon ourselves, but we also have the capacity to give to others, to serve. In this series of essays we explore the relationship of the self — the individual — to service. By service we mean the movement of going beyond oneself, that is, to be in relationship with others through actions that provide sustenance to the body (such as food, water, shelter, clothing, health and safety) and sustenance to the soul (such as art, music, poetry, love, and hope). In the West, especially in the Christian and democratic traditions, much is made of the individual's capacity to help others. Christians are ideally to tithe ten percent of their income so that the church has the resources to offer aid. They are to follow the example of Christ in feeding, clothing, and sharing their possessions with others in need (Matt. 25:31-46), and they are to hear and act on Scripture's charge to create a Kingdom of justice and mercy for all. In the democratic tradition, the place of the commons where members of the society assemble to make decisions for the good of the whole embodies a similar ideal for citizens. People are to debate and to listen to various perspectives, to vote for issues and elect representatives, and to empower members of the social system to act for the good of the whole.1 The fact that neither democratic nor Christian ideals have come to pass does not negate the vision and hope that the world might become a better place. In the past fifteen years, much of the academic community has embraced a pedagogy — a way of teaching — called service learning. Service learning ties service to both the community and the classroom. Ideally, this service will meet identified community needs while at the same time allowing students to make connections from their social action in the community to their course work in the classroom.2 Students offer their talents and expertise to the community and gain experience in the so-called real world while also learning how to connect what they do with their individual academic interests. The primary mode of thought that allows this connection-making is the process of reflection — that is, students and faculty jointly examining, discussing, critiquing, and analyzing their means of and motivations for service, the various needs of the community, and the readings, discussions, lectures and knowledge base of the classroom. The motto of service learning is this: "we learn nothing from experience, we only learn from reflecting on experience." 3 For example, a student studying psychology may decide to work with a counselor at a homeless shelter, observing and learning how the counselor deals with the various issues a homeless person brings to the table. At the same time, he or she may offer to sit with residents of the shelter, to help serve meals, or to take care of a toddler while the child's mother or father searches for work. For the student, there are many opportunities to learn through such service: to see how counseling is done; to interact with a group of people needing counseling; to begin to explore how the student's understandings of psychological issues can be applied; to see child development in a new context, and so forth. From the perspective of the homeless shelter administrators, the student offers much needed help, fosters relationships between the college and the shelter, and offers the counselor an opportunity to share knowledge. The client also benefits in numerous ways, from receiving help with childcare to having a conversational partner who can offer psychological insights into their particular situation. Finally, when the class gathers and students in different placements share their experiences and make connections with psychological concepts introduced in their course work, service learning takes place. Most colleges will offer students the opportunity to serve in this way. Many academics see the practice of service learning, when done well, as a "win-win" situation for all involved. I don't dispute this conclusion, but I would like to explore further our motivations for service. Perhaps we will serve in a course solely for the sake of learning new skills. Perhaps we will serve inside or outside the classroom because we want to make a difference in the life of at least one person in our community. Some people will serve because it makes them feel good about themselves, or because they believe their faith requires them to do so. Others will serve because they see the need to change society in some way — to work for a better secondary school system, for instance, or for universal health care in America. I think it matters why we serve, and it matters who and what we serve. Having taught service learning at Hastings College for four years, I have seen some students who serve primarily for what I would term "selfish" reasons, but I have also seen many students who serve because they want to be in relationship with other people.4 While I will sharply define the motivations as two polar opposites for the purpose of this essay, in reality this is a continuum, and I would ask you, the reader, to reflect on where you find yourself along that continuum. To be selfish is not wrong; it is human. It may well be where we all begin to serve — from our own needs. But I think it is important for us to affirm that it should not be where we end our service. What does "selfish" service look like? To me, it stems from a motivation not so much to be in relation with others but to serve one's own needs. For example, if I serve primarily because it makes me feel good, what does this say about the relationships I have with the people I serve? Will I leave as soon as something challenging comes up? Will I go every week to the nursing home to visit with an elderly man while I am in a class on aging and then drop the relationship as soon as the semester ends? What expectations do I create, and am I committed enough to the relationship that I do more than a "drive by" and leave? In the end, if it is all about me, I will not carefully note that my actions may impact the person I serve in multiple ways, or that my actions may establish expectations I have no intention of meeting. I would also characterize selfish service as "band-aid" service, that is, service that seeks to patch a hole in the social fabric of our lives without addressing the root causes of the problem. I would argue that it is always short-sighted to focus only on immediate needs without examining why a problem exists and what can be done to advance solutions to the problem. If all our attention is focused on patching up immediate needs, we have failed to be in relationship with the people we serve. That is, the people served need to have a voice in what would make their lives better for the long haul. If we are in relationship with the people we serve, we will notice that the short-term solutions often fail. If we are not in relationship with the people we serve, we may say to ourselves, "Well, what I am doing is better than nothing," or, "See how much I've helped." One example of this comes from a student at Stanford who after serving at a homeless shelter remarked to his classmates, "I hope that one day my grandchildren will get to have the same experience working in the same homeless shelter that I did."5 His fellow classmates helped him to see what his remark presumed — that the need would continue for years, that the "band-aids" would still be in place, and that nothing to change the situation would have occurred. Do we really want soup kitchens to be around for another 50 years? Paul Loeb's remarks about this incident are telling: "The student meant no harm, but his words raised a question about the relationship between long-term change and the volunteer work that so many of us do in our classrooms."6 Service that truly changes how we see the world and how we act toward others is service that changes the essence of who and what we are, our self. In that sense, service can bring not selfishness but rather self-transformation. Such service is motivated by a sense of reciprocity — for reciprocity means that each person gives and takes without counting specific costs to the self. In a reciprocal relationship, neither has more power than the other, and both are willing to listen to the other.7 For example, I recently took a group of students to BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, for a January interim course. This experiential program is designed to allow persons from the First World of the United States to learn from persons of the Third World in the latter's own context. Leaders in the program try to make sure that relationships are reciprocal. They pay the Mexican people who educate and offer home stays to the students in order to establish that the Mexicans are important partners in this endeavor. They ask the Mexican leaders to speak about their insights, to educate, and to be in dialogue with their guests. Every effort is made to make sure that all participants in the program are treated with dignity. A United States citizen may stay in a home without indoor plumbing or running water, but he or she is asked to learn from the experience and to understand what pieces of the global economy have contributed to the poverty he or she encounters. All of us on this particular trip found that, when we were actually living in a poor person's home in a Mexican border town, it was very difficult to remain content with our First World ways of thinking. Of course, we had heard many stories before embarking on our visit, but it is quite different when you experience it for yourself. For example, we found it surprising that clean water was extremely limited and we could not take a shower until a water truck came and filled the tank. We were saddened when we saw a young child so hungry that she picked up her plate and licked it at the community house where she received a single meal each day. All of us were troubled. How could we not be? Some of us came back and wrestled with what we could or should do. Should we provide funds for one child's education? Should we go back to BorderLinks to work? Should we advocate for national, international, or even global change? The process of struggling to understand and work toward solutions for such large problems can be overwhelming. We turned to one strong relationship model in our struggles — liberation theology — to help us make sense of our responsibilities. While BorderLinks does not promote itself as a Christian organization, many of those who work with the program have been greatly influenced by the tenets of liberation theology. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully capture what this entails, suffice it to say that liberation theology — especially as it is practiced at BorderLinks — urges Christians to see, to think, and to act.8 To see means actually to experience the reality of poverty. To think means to use one's critical skills to analyze the causes of such poverty and decide what the church's response should be. To act means to work constructively toward bringing about changes in the conditions of poverty and oppression. Liberation theology stresses that the issues of injustice — homelessness, violence, and any form of oppression (such as oppressions based on one's gender, class, or ethnic group) — must be changed. To bring about change, one does not offer charity. Rather, one listens to the stories of the poor themselves and works with them to bring about the needed transformations. A story illustrates the difference between charity and genuine care or reciprocity. Karen McCarthy Brown, an anthropologist, was working with a Vodou priestess, Mama Lola, in New York. The two traveled together to visit Mama Lola's relatives in Haiti. Mama Lola had a lot more money than her relatives, and she was willing to share, but she did not just hand out the funds. Rather, she asked her relatives to help her pack her bags or to set up a bath — in other words, to be in relationship with her. Brown observed these actions and had a moment of insight when she caught someone in the household stealing from her. Brown had not followed Mama Lola's example, for Brown had been giving away money and other items without needing anything in return. Brown's "ah-ha" insight was this: "Charity breeds thievery." Brown concluded: "both (charity and thievery) are deeply flawed human exchanges because both lack reciprocity." 9 Reciprocity is an anthropological term, and in this essay I am weaving together insights from three disciplines — cultural anthropology, theology, and service learning. As a cultural anthropologist, I analyze social systems and try to determine the root causes of oppression and poverty. As a minister, I look to my faith for ways to change social systems that oppress in relationship with others. As a service learning teacher and practitioner, I work to transform myself and my students through doing and reflecting on service. Of course, these insights are ideals, things I strive for but may never obtain. Of course, I am fallible. While I do not hold that you have to be religious to see, to think, and to act in relationship with others, I do hold that our selfishness is deep and real. Our motivations to help others, whether civic minded or religiously based, are also deep and real. It is your task, as a person — as student, teacher, and community leader — to constantly examine yourself and your relationships with others. Are you serving because it will help you? If so, this is a good starting place, a place where we all begin our service. But as you grow and learn from serving you have the opportunity for self-transformation — which, by the way, is never easy but always worthwhile. If you will allow it to do so, your service can and will change you. You will learn from others, you will be in relationship with them, and you will change. As you put on band-aid after band-aid you will ask yourself who is hurting all these people. You will ask questions, see problems, think about solutions (however imperfect), and take action. Your motivations to help will temper your selfishness as you move ever closer to being fully human.
For Further Reading:
- Boff, Leonard and Clodovis Boff. Introducing Liberation Theology. Translated by Paul Burns. New York: Orbis Books. 1987.
- Daloz, Laurent A. Parks, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, and Sharon Daloz Parks. Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
- Fink, Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
- Gutierrez, Gustavo. Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings. Edited by James B. Nickoloff. New York: Orbis Books, 1996.
- Loeb, Paul Rogat, ed. The Impossible Will Take a Little While. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
- Loeb, Paul Rogat. Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
- Sigmon, Robert L, et al. Journey to Service Learning: Experiences from Independent Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges, 1996.
1 To understand better the role of the contemporary citizen and the new commons created by technologies such as the world wide web, see Paul Loeb, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999), and Laurent Parks Daloz, et al, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
2 For more information on service learning, see the web site of the National Service Learning Clearing House, http://www.servicelearning.org. For a concise definition of service learning, see Midwest Consortium of Service Learning in Higher Education at http://si.unl.edu/midwestconsortium/mcmission.htm.
3 This quotation from South African educator Tony Saddington was presented in a workshop on October 15, 2003, given by Wayne E. Harvey at the National Society for Experiential Education annual meetings in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
4 I am indebted to the work of Keith Morton in conceptualizing service as occurring along a continuum. He argues that researchers commonly see the service continuum "as running from charity to advocacy, from the personal to the political, from individual acts of caring that transcend time and space to collective action on mutual concerns that are grounded in particular places and histories" ("The Irony of Service: Charity, Project and Social Change in Service-Learning," Michigan Journal of Community Service-Learning, Fall 1995: 20). He does further analysis and argues that persons serve from three distinct paradigms (charity, project, and social change), and that a continuum of commitment to service exists within each paradigm. In this essay, service as "selfish" corresponds roughly to the charity model, service that is described as "band-aid" service corresponds roughly to the project model, and service that transforms the self corresponds roughly to social change. Morton's work and my analysis here differ in that I am also bringing in a discussion of liberation theology.
5 Loeb 204.
6 Loeb 204.7 I am using reciprocity in an anthropological sense. For example, Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson define generalized reciprocity as "mutual giving and receiving among people of equal status in which there is no need for immediate return, no systematic calculation of the value of the services and products exchanged, and an overt denial that a balance is being calculated or that the balance must come out even" (Cultural Anthropology, Seventh Edition [Boston: Pearson Publishers, 2007] 99).
8 For excellent introductions to liberation theology see Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987) and Gustavo Gutierrez, Essential Writings, ed. James B. Nickoloff (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996).9 Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) 179.