Our church's Youth Group has some service projects lined up for the coming months--work in a wildlife refuge and a trip to Philadelphia for another stint with Kingdom Builders--so we spent a fair amount of our meeting time last night talking about why we would bother to do such things.
It's a somewhat impolite question to ask. Church Youth Groups tend to do service projects the way Girl Scouts sell cookies--its just what we do. When either the leaders or the kids take some time to reflect on our motivations we usually work our way through two observations:
1. The world needs my help. In Howard County, many of our kids grow up unaware that there are people in need of food, safe housing or health care right in our community. Once kids find out a need, they almost always want to respond. They have more than they need and someone else doesn't have enough so they want to help. The kids move from being passive to being active, from being receivers to being givers. They tend to feel great about this. Adolescents want to feel empowered, they want to feel respected for what they can do and appreciated for what they can contribute, and community service fills this need.
2. I need the world's help. Once kids get involved with service, they often end up with this realization: I was the one who was served. They go into an experience motivated by a sense that they are full of gifts to offer and the world is empty and waiting. They quickly discover (sometimes through difficult experiences) that they can't fix or solve most problems they encounter. The people they intended to help have gifts of their own and opinions about the role others will play in their lives. The kids come away from these experiences humbled. They say things like, "I realize I received a lot more than I was able to give." They often want to write their college application essays about this realization.
In my experience, most teenagers only get this far in their thinking. This is not nothing. Many adults--including many who hold elected office--don't seem to have gotten point #1, say nothing of point #2. But last night, there were some hints that the kids in the KC Youth Group were ready to take the reflections a step further.
One of the kids talked about how after a service trip he took to Nicaragua, he began to pay attention to news about that country. He never thought about Nicaragua before and now he thought about the country frequently. Someone else talked about making friends with the people you serve and someone else talked about recognizing how similar people are, even when they appear to live in different worlds. I got excited and couldn't keep myself from jumping in and pointing out that they were circling in on a third reason to engage in service:
3. The world needs relationship. The connection is what makes the difference. The paper bag with a lunch or the weekend spent screwing in drywall is really just a means to an end--and the end is not satiated hunger or a remodeled room, but repaired human community. We do service projects so that we form relationships with people and places and things from which we have somehow allowed ourselves to become separate.
Throughout my conversation with the kids last night, I was thinking about the story in the Columbia Flier this past week about the meeting the Savage Community Association held back in January with Allan Kittleman and Tom Carbo, Director of Howard County Housing. The group wanted to lobby Kittleman for support in their campaign against building a new facility to house the Route One Day Center and 35 efficiency apartments for chronically homeless men and women.
The Savage residents were concerned that such a facility will attract individuals with substance abuse and mental health issues to move into the area. Kittleman disagreed. The Flier quotes him as saying, "I think some people are concerned that more people are coming to Howard County because of these services. I believe that they were here." The article continues:
Though it's hard to track homelessness in Howard – or anywhere, for that matter – advocates say the county's homeless population has historically been focused along the Route 1 corridor.
"Whether we like it or not, they are our neighbors," [Melinda] Becker said of the resource center's clients.
Clearly, homelessness isn't the only problem that needs to be solved in this county. Sure, we need to figure out a way to share resources so that vulnerable people can find the safety and stability they need to take steps towards better health. But this is hard to do when we don't even recognize that the people in need are not "them"--they're "us". They consider our community their home.