Back when I was doing ministry with the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation — could it really have been more than 25 years ago! — bands of mostly young people traipsed through on service trips. Most came at this time of year with eagerness, generosity and a good dose of naïveté. With a critical attitude that frightens me today, I came to harshly judge the value of such trips smacking of cultural imperialism.
I ranted about others painting Grandma’s house when the responsibility really belonged to her own kids. I cynically dismissed the students for coming from privileged suburban schools to further polish their already exaggerated egos at the expense of people I had come to know as colleagues and friends. Yes indeed, I could be pretty cynical and harsh!
Such angry judgments embarrass me now. They have also been found to be unfair and unfounded. There is solid evidence for the power and potential of service. Michelle Sterk-Barrett, at the College of the Holy Cross, is an expert on the issues of best practices in preparation, execution, and the processing of often life-changing encounters.
Sterk-Barrett’s research shows that service experience has a huge impact on both faith formation and citizen engagement. She’s found that service changes students’ world views and self-concepts in critical areas:
- Students who perform some kind of sustained service during their education discover that social problems are far more complex than they’d previously assumed.
- They develop a powerful sense that an individual can improve conditions for those who suffer and can influence social values.
- They discover a level of social concern that changes them into people who identify themselves as engaged, potential community leaders who want to make constructive change.
In contract, Strek-Barrett’s study found that students who did not engage in service experienced no change in these qualities, values or characteristics.
Rather than harshly dismissing well-heeled kids from the ‘burbs, Sterk-Barrett helped me see their generosity as an “eye-opening experience” for them. She states what we all know:
[Many parents] have made decisions that prevent our children from knowing those facing injustice in the world. In a desire to have our children have access to the best educational opportunities and minimize the potential for them to live in unsafe environments, we have collectively segregated ourselves, so that it’s nearly impossible to know and build relationships with people living in poverty.
The result of this segregation? Stereotypes that perpetuate the misconception that people in need are fundamentally inferior to those of us who have been “successful” in traditional terms. Service, if done well, has the power to change individuals who change the world.
My conclusion 25 years later? We need many more, and better, service opportunities — and not just for students, but for seniors and every citizen in between! It’s never too early or late to start. Let’s all get out there and “be of some earthly good.”
Doing something for others — for which we do not get paid — has been shown to be a pretty good indicator of human character!
This reflection is heavily dependent upon an April 10 article on the website Crux by Kathleen Hirsch. I heartily recommend her article which you may access [here].
Thanks for this excellent reflection. I have spent my adult life working wtih volunteers in low-income communities. The experience is life changing for them.
In our numerous mission trips to various countries and at home, two great lessons stand out. First, we went with the intent to be a blessing to others yet found that we were more profoundly blessed by them. Second, we look at our “disposable income” spending through the lens of what those dollars will buy for others in need; for us, education is priority so we sponsor children to attend school and provide funds for helping to build schools. I enjoy HGTV programs and often find myself thinking, “Don’t they realize that the cost of this renovations could build and entire hospital in ….”.