What if our culture of service was more defined by what we accomplish with others than by what we accomplish for them?
It was 2009 and I found myself on the west-side of Chicago participating in a service trip. As is true for many service-driven individuals, I was confident that my choice to volunteer for a week would be a gift to the people that I was going to meet. I felt proud and excited to give myself to a community that seemed to have so much need.
However, as the week ended, I was struck with the realization that while I did go to help and to serve, at the end of the day, this community helped and served me. I am pretty sure that I left that trip having received more love, more hospitality, and more generosity than I had given. I was humbled, grateful and surprised.
This occasion wouldn’t have left such a big impression had it been an anomaly. But this kept happening to me. I spent a summer in a garbage village in Cairo. I thought that I was doing my duty by holding orphans and teaching English. However, it was the hospitality and spiritual resilience of this village that left its mark on me. From my perspective, they were materially poor. But as the summer ended, I came to see that they were rich in the things that mattered most, like laughter and joy.
This happened to me once more while living in Northern Uganda. I thought that I was bringing my community development expertise to the table – and sure, maybe I brought something helpful. But at the end of the day, while this community was in the throws of rebuilding after a 20-year long armed conflict, they had a freedom and gratitude that was astounding and healing to me. I was humbled and surprised yet again.
It was the same story, over and over again.
The people I came to help ended up helping me.
The people I came to serve ended up serving me.
The people I came to teach ended up teaching me.
What was going on here?
After years of service, volunteering and practicing community development work, I now know that I had been regularly receiving from the dignity of other people. I was experiencing the fact that everyone has something of value to offer.
Pope John Paul II is quoted as having said, “Nobody is so poor that they have nothing to give and nobody is so rich that they have nothing to receive.” Dignity is about the inherent worthiness and value of people. Dignity is not something that we give to one another nor is it something that can be taken away. Our efforts for social good do not give dignity, they are merely opportunities to affirm the inherent worth that each person already carries.
A frequent disconnect in our work for social good is that we often don’t consider what it means that each person we encounter has something to give. We take the posture of savior and rather than inviting those whom we seek to serve to the table as equals, we create relationships of inequity based primarily on their needs and on our provision. This one way flow of resources leads to burnout and frustration. In worst-case scenarios, many of problems we seek to solve are left in more damaging conditions than when we found them.
However, in the midst of this disconnect, each of us has the opportunity to pioneer a different way of service – a way that invites collaborators and influencers to the decision-making table from all levels and margins of society.
For your business, when you’re ready to make that first hire, what if you chose someone from a different ethnic or socioeconomic background than yours?
In the non-profit venture you’re bringing to life, what would happen if you let a group of people from that community design an entire initiative? And rather than you leading the charge, what if you simply signed up as a volunteer for their project?
For the creative project that you’re exploring, what if you extended yourself to visit new neighborhoods, to create from different kinds of spaces, and to hear stories from people who come from a different worldview than your own? How might this diversity enhance the depth and breadth of your work?
I believe that this way of service is possible. I believe that we can change the culture of social good from a tendency towards one-way flows of resources to the work of mutual exchange and interdependence. I believe that we can diversify our teams. I believe that we can work in such a way that amplifies the value that already exists in the communities that we serve.
We can design solutions to social problems that are built on a foundation of dignity, but it is the kind of work that we can only do together.