Learning Through Serving

John Bradley

With the end of the summer comes a successful completion of two months of the Center for FaithJustice’s work with students from middle school through college in JusticeworX, ServiceworX, and LeaderworX.  As I witness the growth of those projects, I am heartened and can’t help but think back to some of the experiences of service, justice and faith that helped form me.

One of the central ideas I learned within the context of those experiences was the necessity of personally encountering and educating oneself about the people for whom and area in which you are providing service. The reason is because the encounter and education help the volunteer to understand that the person accepting help is not merely an object but a subject. The person encountered by the volunteer is a living player in history, a participant working within micro-forces of family and community and macro-forces of economics, law, geography and politics. If the volunteer doesn’t grapple with the individuals and the history of the particular community, the people may be an object of distanced pity (or possibly an object of judgment and scorn), but will likely not be understood as human persons endowed with rights, needs, longings and abilities.

Once encountered, however, the experience is not easily laid aside. A conversation changes the previously unnamed poor to Anne, Linda, Vincent, Herb — individuals with unique stories of family, illness, heartbreak. Studying the history of how a river was poisoned leads the volunteer to halt his use of pesticides on the front lawn and opt for a bicycle over a car. It just isn’t easy to walk away from a day at a soup kitchen and not give the patrons another thought if you have sat with them and listened.

Over the course of a half-dozen years straddling the turn of the century, I was gifted with the opportunity to repeatedly travel to the Central Appalachian region to work with Habitat for Humanity and other local organizations. What helped transform those experiences into something that stays with me to this day is what I was able to learn from the Appalachian people and the available histories. I still stop in my tracks every time I see a headline about coal or hear someone picking a mandolin (before Apple had Itunes, Kentucky had — and still has — Appalshop). The region informs my ethical choices, my spirituality and my politics.

Coming to know an individual’s story and a community’s history makes life, well, uncomfortable. Easy explanations and convenient solutions disintegrate before your eyes. You know each person in the free meal line has a story; maybe you should stop and hear it. You recognize that children don’t die of malnutrition without the complicity of the greater society; so you have to work for justice and compassion. And, as a slight aside, you begin to realize that, however painful, you need to charitably listen to people with views different from your own, if for no other reason these days than that maybe our politicians would have a reason to do the same.

On the other hand, these experiences bring life vivid color, because you’ve been touched by another human being, because you’ve seen hope where you only expected hardship, because you are more connected to the good earth. And in so doing, you experience “God with us.”

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