We often use the word “service” when we talk about pouring time and energy into others, especially if those people are in some way “poor” or “needy”. But that great sounding word can gloss over some of the unseemly realities of our good intentions. If we’re honest, sometimes we serve others to build up our ego and to feel good about ourselves, or we do so in hopes that peers will notice our generosity and think more highly of us (Mt 6:1-4).
Incarnation and solidarity sit closer to the heart of the gospel than mere service. The good news of Emmanuel is not born on the outside of suffering, but only in the heart of it.
A few years ago, we scrapped our various one-off “service projects,” and replaced those efforts with long-term commitments to one or two local, relationship-based programs, and called it the LOST program. Through this program, we’ve spent thousands of hours tutoring elementary school students alongside Peace Community Center and the Trinity Afterschool Program (TAP), prepared and shared meals at Tony’s Kitchen, and helping families get food through the St. Leo Food Connection. This year we’re gardening alongside families and turning unused green spaces between sidewalks and curbs into small vegetable gardens with Hilltop Urban Gardens.
The experience of students who have gotten “LOST” in Tacoma has been powerful and formative. I’m humbled by the hearts of those students, and inspired by the stories they share.
That’s the good news, but it’s not the whole story. Over the last two years, student involvement in service opportunities has declined. It’s easy to imagine all the reasons that might lie behind this trend. Students are overworked and overcommitted. Millennials are all just selfie-taking narcissists. There are too many service opportunities on campus. Maybe students aren’t interested in the work of the organizations we’ve chosen.
We’re trying to better understand what’s happening, but honestly, we’re not entirely sure. It’s natural and healthy to allow fruitless programs to end when they’ve run their course, but this one feels different. The challenges of this program seem to reflect larger cultural and spiritual trends towards religion that serves and feeds the individual, rather than challenges the individual to serve and to feed others.
LOST teams can’t correct that cultural trend, but they can invite the students of Puget Sound to live sacrificially, incarnationally, and in solidarity with people who suffer in our city, as an act of Christian faith. We will continue to seek deeper understanding of shifting trends, and to explore alternatives that might provide some of the same experiences for students. But for now, we’re going to plant some vegetable gardens in the Hilltop, and wait prayerfully to see what will grow.