The spiritual teachings of Ignatius of Loyola invite us to think about what contributions we can make to the world in order to renew it and to fight for social justice. You can see some Jesuit thoughts on service here. Other thinkers who support this mission are, for example, Fr. Oscar Romero (San Romero de America), and Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría. You can find out more about their stories here.
Inspired in some of the thinkers above, I believe that we are all stewards of creation, and that some of us, because of luck and privilege, have a greater share of the responsibility in making sure there’s enough for everyone else, and to tip the balance in favor of those who suffer injustice and inequality. Consequently, I feel personally committed to sharing my time, heart, energy, and talents with those in need. If you will, it is my way of “paying rent in the planet,” and honoring the presence of God in other beings.
My continual journey of service to the University of Scranton includes membership in many committees (e.g. the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate, the Women’s Studies Steering Committee, the Faculty Development Board, etc.), and participation in activities such as the President’s breakfast, Scranton’s Got Talent, the Festival of Nations, diverse programming of the Jane Kopas Women’s Center and the Office of Diversity, etc. On this site, however, I want to expand on my experience and thoughts about a different type of service, namely, community service outside of the University. My recent community service experiences include:
- Global Tastes of Scranton: University of Scranton, Catholic Social Services, Terra Preta restaurant & other partners
- Consulting and planning events that highlight the cuisine and culture of other nations of which Scranton has become a new home via the refugee resettlement program
- City of Scranton’s Women’s Resource Center
- Answering the emergency line, providing clerical and physical support to employees and program participants
- Yolia home for girls, and Yolia daycare (Mexico City)
- Mentoring students, translating, providing physical support to employees and program participants, networking
- University of Scranton and Hand-in Hand Ministries (Nicaragua)
- Building a house along with a Nicaraguan team, accompanying a Nicaraguan family, providing support for team and community
- University of Scranton and Friends of the Poor
- Providing physical support in Thanksgiving food give-away, Christmas food give-away, Christmas toy give-away
- University of Scranton’s E.F.F.O.R.T. group (Excess Food For Others Recovery Team)
- Delivering of donations to different locations
- Breadbasket of Northeastern Pennsylvania
- Serving as Board member, promoting events
- Griffin Pond Animal Shelter
- Socialization of cats and dogs
Some Thoughts on Service
Much of what is expressed here is inspired in two pillars. First, the experience of the spiritual pilgrimage I did to El Salvador with colleagues from the University of Scranton. CRISPAZ and the many organizations and people to whom they introduced us, Centro Arte Para La Paz, and Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) El Salvador, as well as the Salvadoran people I met and my Scranton colleagues. Second, the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP), of which, thanks to my institution, I am a part. They have allowed me the opportunity to think through the meaning of a life of service. Accompanying me in this journey are also the Center for Service and Social Justice, and the office of Campus Ministries of the University of Scranton . The CSSJ has a website listing over 100 service opportunities per semester and an indispensible Guide to Volunteering.
My first service trip took place when I was in high school; I went to the countryside of Mexico with some of my peers to deliver food and other groceries, and provide some sense of spiritual renewal to the communities that hosted us. Unfortunately, I am not sure how much we in fact helped out the community we visited. I don’t know what impact our visit had, whether we were more of a nuisance and an expense, or maybe even a reminder of how little the privileged truly understand poverty. We were perhaps too inexperienced to realize that service is not the same as charity, that true service is done in the terms set by the one who receives it, and that more often than not, those whom we serve are the ones who are doing us a favor by letting our inexperience and misperceptions intersect with their lives for a brief moment in time.
Since then, I have worked on developing a commitment to and understanding of service that is more true to form; for what it’s worth, it’s here and I would like to take this opportunity to share it with you. One of the main ideas behind my current perspective on service is that, if you pay attention, service changes you. In my view, service should not leave us untouched; it should not allow us to forget that, through very little merit of our own, we have privilege and others don’t, and that we have a responsibility to make things better—paraphrasing San Romero de America, to opt for the poor.
This might seem somewhat shocking, and perhaps it is so because many of us are used to thinking that we owe our success/privilege solely to our own hard work. We can call this the ‘individualistic’ perspective. I now invite you to consider another perspective, one that I will call ‘pluralistic.’ It is based on the African concept Ubuntu, loosely translated as, ‘I am because we are.’ You can learn more about Ubuntu here. From the pluralistic perspective, our personal success would be unattainable if we were really truly on our own with no one else to help us—I am not simply speaking about those who are present, but even those who have passed on.
Ubuntu. Who collaborates behind the scenes so that we can do what we do? Take the case of a full-time student. Even when unacknowledged, there is collaboration between teachers, administrators, staff, a government, scholars and researchers, librarians, security forces, parishes, museums, tradespeople, etc. so that this student in this one school, in this one neighborhood can in fact attend school. Think about it, someone makes her clothes and shoes, someone makes her food, someone drives her school bus, someone maintains the home she lives in, someone crafted the laws that make it legal for her to attend school. Ubuntu. It is indeed the student’s work that results in her grades, but it is not her individual work that makes it all possible. Of course, without her personal work, enthusiasm, energy, etc., the student could not succeed—her work is indeed an element in the collaborative network that allows her to attend school and succeed in it. Now let us go beyond this to fully appreciate the collaborative network that I have discussed. The work of the student, and the fact that she indeed goes to school makes other things possible for other people. For example, teachers have jobs because there are students who attend school; custodians have jobs in schools because there are schools where they are needed, and so on. Moreover, the student’s perseverance in studies will allow her to give back to the community that allowed her to become successful: those who played a part in her success will now get a chance to benefit from it. The privilege of being a full-time student is paid not only (or primarily) in fees and taxes; there is also a much heftier debt of the heart. The student in our example is an integral part of a network of people and lifestyles and institutions that intersect; it is a crossroads of souls and life projects; now it’s her turn to give back and help someone else.
To have a fuller idea about the privilege of being a full-time student, let us consider the following. Many children and teenagers don’t have a school they can attend. According to UNICEF, 59 million children of primary school age are denied the right to education. There are other children who can and do go to school, but it is far away. The documentary “On The Way to School” explores the lives of children who must travel miles back and forth every day to be able to attend school. How many of those who do go to school have the appropriate nutrition to absorb the material they learn? Emily Walthouse from The Borgen Project tells us that malnutrition affects brain development, the strength of the immune system, mood, and sleep patterns. (See also for further information on children and malnutrition.) How many others can employ afternoons and weekends studying rather than going to work? You can have access to the UN’s facts on child labor here . The University of Iowa’s Child Labor Education project has some useful data on this issue here. How many others don’t have a safe environment where they can do homework because of home violence, displacement, natural disasters, etc.?
These questions are not meant to take away merit from your life or mine, they are not meant to shame us. They are, nevertheless, uncomfortable questions that we need to face, and answer. They will make us move and change the situation, tip the balance in favor of the marginalized, and erase injustice and inequalities. Why is it that only some people can be full-time students, or stock traders, or physicians, or academics? It’s greatly (though not exclusively) a matter of luck. And, lucky for us at the University of Scranton, we are here to develop the talents to change things so that, no matter what luck people have, they can obtain the resources to continue their betterment, and that of their community. This work is ongoing; even when we don’t have much, there will always be those who have less, and that will always be unjust.
The University of Scranton believes we should all become men and women for and with others. This tells us that service is being there for the other, in the terms that the other sets, attending to the needs of the other, accompanying the other. The other always comes first.
Indeed, service should certainly not be undertaken with the sole goal of feeling good about ourselves. Rather, it should be an invitation to share our individual talents in order to illuminate, and give voice to the needs of another. In addition, we should be humble and know that one person cannot solve all the problems that another one has, one cannot quell all of someone’s fear, one cannot just flip a switch and change another’s perspective on life forever—nor should we want to. Sainthood is not a monopoly. Ubuntu. Service is about the other: woman, man, child, animal, community, etc. We are only instruments for the good. We are not heroes, or saviors, or fixers; we are who we are, and we bring to the table what we have. Others do the same. The difference is that we are privileged and others are not. Although, in fact, it is a bit worse: we have what we have because others do not have it. It’s time to change that and promote social justice with our actions, not only our words.