It’s fall, and with the beginning of the school year, my daughter is a freshman in high school. Part of the curriculum is the requirement that the students do service directly with the marginalized in order to learn how to serve. Sitting at back to school night, I listened to the service coordinator explain the service requirement by offering an analogy to fishing. This is about transforming your child, he explained. Don’t just count your hours—make the hours count. Over the four years, they hope to move the students from distributing fish, to teaching others to fish to asking why it is necessary to fish at all.
Giving fish is the most basic level of service. At this stage, those serving are learning to meet the basic needs of those they encounter by providing food, shelter or money. Another term for this kind of service is charity, and it is a good place for students to start.
Beyond giving fish is teaching others to fish. This type of engagement is deeper, and therefore potentially transformational. It calls both parties into a relationship. It means that each gives to the other, for students are often a teachers’ best teacher.
Finally, there is learning to look at and take action to change the root causes of hunger, poverty and other disparities. This is about looking upstream, at the reasons why fishing alone is not enough to provide for the basic needs of others. This is about learning to be an advocate for the voiceless, and to act for change. This is what is known as social justice, and it often takes until adulthood to take root in a person. Social justice is about compassion, about solidarity and about wanting to transform our society.
I was still thinking about the presentation when I came to work at SVdP the next day. In the front of SVDP’s Homeless Help Center, I met eager volunteers who were younger than my daughter and serving with their parents. They had helped to prepare the sandwiches for the day, acting in charity. But even more inspiring, they were giving out sandwiches to our clients with bright smiles. By talking directly to the clients, fishing had begun. These students were creating relationships, ones that would grow through repeated experiences. I was struck by the beauty of service, and by these families who had taken the time to come and serve others.
Later, our executive director introduced me to some of our clients. Lorraine’s door is often open, literally, to those we serve. In between meetings and phone messages, she takes the time to listen to a client who has brought in a notice that electricity is going to be turned off temporarily in the building in which she lives. Struggling with cognitive difficulties, this client did not understand what was said in the house meeting that she attended the night before. Lorraine’s compassionate presence, and the ability to tell this client’s story to those who can change policies is social justice in action. It’s all part of the work that SVdP does, one relationship at a time.
As a person who is being touched by the goodness that ripples out from the front of the office to the corner office, I am grateful!