meaningful service

Within my church community, we frequently emphasize service as a good thing that we should seek perform for others.  As such, we often organize service activities, in which we come together as a community to perform larger scale service that we might not otherwise be able to do as individuals. While I think this is a great idea, I think that there's one major aspect that can often be improved.  More on that soon.

There are roughly four objectives in performing service:
  • Help  This is the most important objective: to fill the needs of others.  Needs can range from the physical, like hunger, to social needs, like loneliness.
  • Feed the Fire  Individuals need to feel compassion for others; part of the goal of service is to kindle that desire in individuals so that they will be better people in their daily lives.
  • Community building  Whether individuals are working side by side in an activity or one person is helping another, service forges connections within a community.
  • Be an example  Here, the goal is to inspire people outside our community, either by welcoming them to join us or reminding them to do good independently.

The last objective is difficult in many contexts because it often gets conflated with getting good press, which is not the goal.  If we want to take pictures for our own memories, that's fine, but taking picture for the explicit purpose of handing them to a reporter seems disingenuous.  When we're trying to be an example, we should always be inclusive, which is to say, we should never isolate the people we are talking to. We should try to make them feel like they were there with us so that next time maybe they will be.

What I really want to talk about is the first objective: actually helping people.  We have a responsibility to be effective in our choices of service.  We need to ask ourselves: what are real needs? and not what is easy to do in the hour we have on Wednesday night with the youth?  Certainly we aren't always ready to ask these questions—there are weeks when easy is all I can handle.  When we have extra time and energy, however, this is where we should put the effort.

What are common service projects?
  • tie the ends of felt quilts
  • local disaster relief (e.g. hurricane cleanup)
  • writing letters to missionaries
  • yard work / housecleaning for members
  • visiting with seniors or disabled individuals
  • baking things for people
  • making sanitation or relief kits

Take an honest look at the list.  Which of these have you done?  What has been your mindset for each one?  What mindset has the activity encouraged?  The winners for impact are local disaster relief and visiting with seniors or disabled individuals; not coincidentally, they almost always are accompanied with a sincere charitable mindset.  Other tasks are more about the secondary objectives.  When writing generic one-time letters to missionaries that you don't really know, who is really benefiting?  What about tying the ends of piece of felt that's just as effective as a blanket without your effort? Often it's more about performing the service than the actual impact of the service itself.

What else can we do that's effective?
  • We can  develop long lasting relationships with lonely or outlier individuals. These are not just one-time visits.  My brother used to go play chess with a retired man in our neighborhood; I don't think either of them even thought of it as service, but it brought effortless joy to both sides.  This could be a simple as going to watch a fun TV show with someone.
  • Fundraising  I think we shrink away from fundraising too much; there are a lot of fun, creative ways to fundraise, especially if we reach outside the church community.  Dessert auctions, hunger banquets, craft bazaars, yard sales, by-donation dancing lessons—the possibilities are endless.  If the proceeds go to an effective charity, this seems like a great option.
  • Tutoring or reading to underprivileged kids.  I was a reading buddy at an old workplace which was walking distance from an elementary school with lots of low-income ESL students. A group of us would go over and read to the kids and play word games like hangman.  It was fun, easy, and effective.  Some kids just aren't getting enough individual attention to learn as best they can, and you can help.

What's the take home message?  We need to think about the people we're trying to serve first: what are real needs that exist in the world?  Maybe we need to do more research, or maybe we just need to think outside of our usual sphere of influence.  Regardless, we need to stop worrying as much about the secondary objectives.  You should know that something is wrong when you have the idea for a service project and then ask: so who could we give this quilt to?  All of the objectives I've listed are good; it's just a question of good vs. better.  


Anonymous said...

It's scary how in the USA even the most educated people are enrolled in some type of religion. And I don't want the excuse of helping other people or meeting friends, you can do both without religion.
In Europe (from Spain to Norway) the churches have only old women, or inmigrants coming from poorer countries (I say this with respect). But how come that religion is popular among educated people in the USA? Can't you see that doing good for "beliefs" is less good than doing good just because of the fact of doing good? Do you have any proofs? How can you keep a magical thought way of living after going to high school?

ajbc said...

I'm hesitant to even respond to this instead of deleting it as spam.

For me, it's scary how completely disrespectful some people are of religion. Religion is more than just helping people or meeting friends. Religion is about connecting with the divine and bettering oneself in the process.

I am thoroughly insulted by your comments, because it is obvious that you don't want to understand religion. I don't accuse atheists of being delusional, so don't accuse me of such.

Faith is complicated. I struggle with it, but it causes me to grow. My proof is through that growth and through spiritual experiences. There are fleeting moments in which I feel that I understand something larger than myself.

In some ways, faith is like trying a new food for the first time; you can't know until you really try it--and not in the manner of 5-year-olds swallowing something without actually tasting it. You have to be equally willing to accept all possibilities, and often for a long time. Only then can you find what you really believe.

There is no proof that there is no God; it is an impossible hypothesis to test. Yet why do so many people claim it as absolute truth? It's obvious to some and alien to others. I don't think it's wrong to be an atheist, nor is it wrong to be agnostic, spiritual but not religious, culturally religious, devout, or orthodox in any religion. I think there is room for all of us in this world, and that we can learn from each other.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry if I offended you, maybe I overreacted because of past personal experiences that I had with other religious Americans, and thanks for your response, you seem a nice person.

By the way, I am not an atheist, maybe agnostic. Raised Christian (as most of the people of the western world), and I believed as a child, of course. But I also believed in Santa Claus, and I can understand that it is comforting to believe on an antropomorphic symbol of good, who protects and makes sure that there is justice.

I simply don't understand how in the USA, a first-world country (we can debate that, since there is not social security or public retirement), educated people are still very religious. And why this religious people are yet so cruel because they let people die of cancer if they don't have the money to pay for treatment. In first world countries, or Europe from Greece/Spain to Norway/Finland, you get first class cancer treatment without paying a Euro. And you retire at 65. And if you are 70 and you have cancer you will get the best treatment available for free (you payed with taxes before, of course, but you have the security that you won't go bankrupt for a disease). I find this cynical and hypocritical: being religious but so cruel.

And I can feel spiritual experiences too, but I can do that believing in Santa Claus. Or seeing how vast and beautiful is the nature.

I recommend you reading "The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan.

English is obviously not my mother tongue, sorry. I hope I haven't been too harsh. Feel free to delete/don't answer this comment, I only wanted to tell you, I don't need it to be public. Anyways, do with your life what it makes you happy (I discovered your blog via your work, which I find really interesting, congratulations by the way).

ajbc said...

I am sorry for reacting harshly myself—it’s not often that people compare faith in God to faith in Santa Claus. There are some comparisons, surely, but there are also substantial differences. Still, Santa Claus was constructed from a reality—a real man helping others. That we now teach our children that he flies around in a magic sleigh is a little absurd.

I think it is entirely possible for our contemporary understanding of God to be constructed from a lack of scientific knowledge, but it is possible for there to actually be a God. Both are not incompatible. I reason: if religion makes me a better person in this life* and there’s a possibility that there is a God, then why not believe? If there is nothing after death, then no harm done, but if there is, then I have prepared myself more fully.

* It does, but not perhaps for the reasons you’d expect. Obviously a moral code is great, and religion clarifies that for me, but more importantly it forces me to interact with people of differing backgrounds and beliefs. Some people who attend church ascribe to more "magical thought" than others. I tend toward less of that, but being exposed to and trying to understand other approaches challenges me and broadens my perspective on humanity. If I did not attend church, my social sphere would be inundated with mostly liberal academics and my opinions would likely converge to theirs due to continued exposure. With a balancing, more conservative and more religious perspective, I am free to navigate a path between the two words, reconciling science and faith, liberal and conservative ideals, and highly educated with often uneducated perspectives.

But back to your real question: how are educated people in the US religious? The answer is that it’s simply a matter of culture. As a country founded in part on religious freedom, our diversity of religion is part of our cultural identity, and so expressing religious beliefs is more acceptable. Your initial reaction is evidence toward this idea: if I were to find out an academic colleague was religious, it wouldn’t phase me. But in discovering my religion, your reaction was to disparage religion in general. If that were the attitude of all my friends, or of my nation, I would stop admitting to being religious. If my faith were weak, that might be enough to stop being religious at all.

There’s a distinction between being religious and being believing. In the USA, many people are culturally religious—it is their heritage, much like ethnic heritage. Others are actually believe, ascribing to particular religions or not. I think the latter group is smaller than you might realize.

I’m not going to debate the hypocrisy of the more religious contingent being the more politically conservative one. I think universal health care could be really wonderful, but those decisions have little to do with the religious beliefs of the populace, hypocritically or not.

I want you to understand that there are people out there who have faith like mine: dynamic, continually evolving, and in some ways scientific. I do not simply ascribe to the doctrines of a denomination without question. I doubt, question, and search for answers continually—and this is part of the enjoyment and the growing process. Being religious to me means actively trying to find out what I believe, instead of accepting something someone has told me or shelving my concerns for later.

Thank you for your comments, and I’m glad that you find my academic work interesting.