While we were at a soup kitchen during a service and justice trip, a woman confronted another participant on the trip about why we had come to eat with them. She brought up how coming to the kitchen and eating with the homeless wasn’t really helping anyone. We were taking advantage of people like her to feel better about ourselves, and we would forget about them as soon as we left.
I don’t really disagree with the woman. I think she and I probably have fairly similar views of how “service” is helping others.
The Catholic Church has a vision of love in action that emphasizes two pillars: service and justice. The idea is that you must have both – working together – in order to show love. Service addresses the immediate needs of those who are suffering, and justice is trying to make sure that the long-term causes of that suffering is addressed and removed. These aren’t independent processes. Love pushes someone to address the needs of the suffering, and that encounter of suffering must push us to act in a greater way.
My problem with this has always had to do with my hang-ups on whether service can really effectively be “love.” The way we typically approach service is done in single-serve works of volunteering and donations. We are “helping” the people who are below us. There is something inherently un-loving with this notion, specifically that the people we are serving are somehow less than us. In my mind, service often removes the human dignity that all people deserve.
Can we really come to understand the suffering and the inherent human dignity of the homeless through a single meal, and do so in a way that pushes us to act upon it? This women clearly did not feel as though she was loved by having us there. She clearly did not think that we would act to try and correct the systems that had put her there, and the truth is, I don’t think any of us would in any way but a token manner.
So, there’s a question then of what service with love really is.
Fr. Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart, emphasizes a need to stand with those at the margins. “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased.”
Over the weekend, I attended a lecture at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice entitled, “Who is my neighbor?” It focused on what it meant to be in service to the poor and included a poem by Wendell Berry entitled “The Guest.” The poem focuses on Berry’s encounter with the homeless. At the end of the poem, Berry expresses his short falling in serving the man she encounters.
“I give him a smoke and the price
Of a meal, no more
–not sufficient kindness
Or believable sham.
I paid him to remain strange
To my threshold and table,
To permit me to forget him”
This poem emphasizes the point made by Boyle about erasing margins. When margins exist, there is going to be a separation, and we will automatically fall into the trap of dehumanizing those that we are attempting to serve. We can’t erase these margins in a single meal or with a single donation. Such actions leave the people we are trying to love as “strange.” Service, if we are going to treat it as love, needs to be repeated and continuous. Relationships need to be built, and distinctions erased.
This is the sort of service that motivates people to work towards justice, and where the two feet of love in action can walk as one. To work with those we love is an act of service; to erase the margins that separate us is an act of justice.