(Embarrassingly, it took this First Things piece to make me realize I'd never posted this blog entry...But honest, I was thinking about that piece of music in mid-February, though not as thoughtfully as Stephen Webb).
A few years ago, I happened to be sitting next to my favorite Catholic Communist at a university event. One of the speakers was a young woman who shared her experience doing service work in Central America and noted how very, very lucky she felt when she got home and got in her hot shower—a sharp contrast with the reality of the people she’d met. My friend and I looked at each other and sighed --and then had a vigorous discussion about the problem with her attitude. Because it is the thing we both hate about service work. To be clear: I think service work is a good thing; even a great thing. I’d dare say even a necessary thing. Many people do it beautifully and sincerely. But too often, it is undertaken or encouraged in a spirit that is antithetical to the task: It easily becomes a sort of Post-Modern neocolonialism. Oh, look at these poor people! They have nothing. We, on the other hand, are fat and rich and happy. We will go and help these poor people with all our money and talents: they will learn from us. And we will remember how good we have it back home when we return. A win-win: how good we are, and enlightened, too! At the end, we get to come home and live our regular lives, feeling even more smug and self-contented. (Though this recent post really took down the voluntourism phenomenon, in a pretty rough way: http://pippabiddle.com/2014/02/18/the-problem-with-little-white-girls-and-boys/. She’s on to something, though I’d say Pippa misses something, too).
Another story: When I was living at home about fifteen years ago, my father got hold of a CD. It’s Gavin Bryars’ recording of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” and it features a recording of a homeless man singing that line repeatedly to instrumentation. It moves me to sobbing tears every time I listen to it. Music has a power to touch the soul that is impossible to explain, and I won’t try to penetrate its mystery fully. But I know that part of what moved me was the fact of this poor homeless man singing this song of praise and gratitude—a praise and gratitude that is and was much rarer to find coming out of my lips. This man wasn’t grateful for his home or his clothes or his accomplishments or his talents. His gratitude was more elemental: he was grateful for his very being.
This gets to the heart of what service truly is: something I do because I need it. Selfish me, I need to be reminded of my need to give myself by giving of myself. I need to see people who are truly needy and aren’t spending all day faking it so I can remember that I’m needy. Then, I get a chance to understand who I really am. And my experience with service can become solidarity, self-realization, and true self-giving, rather than naïve and patronizing work which may or may not really help the people I set out to serve. The more deeply I realize my need, the more I can give myself truly.
The most extreme and beautiful case of this awareness is a place in Kampala, where women afflicted with AIDS live with a tremendous hope: a hope that is visible in their approach to life. I learned that these women, sick with HIV and poor themselves, had taken on extra work to make money to send to the Katrina Victims. And I thought, how lucky these women are! To see the world through the lens of their own need and their own gratitude without polluting influences. I’d like to go there and learn to live like that. Because it’s what I need.
Here’s the trailer to a documentary made on the life and hope of these women in Kampala: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfhAGscOam0