Community Service is a buzzword where I live, on the campus of a boarding school filled with students aspiring to Ivy League schools. They're required to do it. It looks good on their college "brag" sheet. And, for the most part, they enjoy it.
But I always wonder who they are serving. The students from the urban public school down the road? The elderly people at the nursing home? Or themselves and their college ambitions? Or both?
I'm working on a thesis about the Southern writer Flannery O'Connor, and in the course of my research I came across a long quotation from an African-American woman from Mississippi, reflecting upon the civil rights movement. Her words are insightful in and of themselves, and they have broader application in thinking about helping others. She gets at the ways in which acts of service can be self-serving, and she hints at what it would look like for service to be about mutual understanding, giving and receiving:
"You'd tell your faith to the civil rights folks, and they'd look down at the ground, and they'd wait you out, with a bad, bad look in their eyes, and their mouths turned down, and they'd be scratching the back of their necks, until you've stopped talking, so they could start talking. And boy, did they talk! I told one white boy from up there in Massachusetts that he's going to be a minister of Christ the Lord one of these days, when he sees the light. But he didn't like what I said, no he didn't. He just went on, telling me what should be, and telling me about the heaven we're going to have here in this country, if we'd only turn everything around.
Well, there's no heaven but in Heaven. And if you don't know that, you don't know much. That's what I believe. Of course, you can't tell some people much. They want to tell you everything. That's how it goes. They come here to help us, but oh, if we don't bow and scrape to their every idea, then they lose patience with us, and I declare, you see them looking at you no different than the sheriff, and the people at the post office, and like that. Scratch some of the white civil rights people and you have the plantation owners. Scratch some of the black civil rights people, and you have white talkers...
... Some of these people who came down here, they believed in men, not angels; and sure enough, they didn't believe in God. It's their choice, but it might have been nice if they'd said to me: it's your choice. Instead, they felt sorry for us. Jesus Christ didn't feel sorry for the people he attended to. He loved them. He healed them out of love. He wanted them on their feet and the equal of other people. He wanted them to thank God. On your knees to him; 'yes, sir,' and 'yes, ma'm' to the white folks, and hello to your colored brethren, but to God Almighty, it's a prayer, and it's please dear Lord, please, and I've failed again. There's a big difference between Him and us, that's for sure."
–From Ralph C. Woods, The Comedy of Redemption, pp 111-112
Serving someone else can be all about me, or it can be about us. When it is about us, I suspect the Spirit has shown up.