One table in our cafeteria was particularly busy this week. It wasn’t a bake sale or some special food offering. It was students signing up with our Campus Ministry staff for regular volunteer opportunities throughout the school year. Every Tuesday, CRSM sends students to local PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) locations to set up beds and then prepare and serve an evening meal for local people experiencing homelessness. Also on Tuesdays, separate groups go to Roberti Community House to provide mentoring and tutoring to younger children in the area. On Wednesday nights, students go to the Northern Illinois Food Bank to pack food that is then distributed throughout northern Illinois for our neighbors who are experiencing food insecurity, including monthly distribution events in CRSM’s parking lot. Thursdays, students assemble individualized nutritious meal packs from bulk ingredients at Feed My Starving Children that are then shipped to domestic and international locations in urgent need of food – refugee camps, natural disaster relief sites, and agencies fighting chronic hunger and poverty – mostly in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.
Unlike many other public and private schools, CRSM intentionally does not require a certain number of volunteer hours for graduation. We want students to freely choose to volunteer their time and effort. Requiring rather than inviting turns doing service into a transactional rather than transformational experience. This is an important distinction since we want students to come to know the grace inherent in selfless acts by choice, not coercion. Freedom to choose leaves open the possibility that service will transform our students’ sense of self and their ability to change the world.
Mahatma Gandhi observed, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer includes the lines, “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned…” Service benefits the servers as much or more than the recipients. At CRSM, we strive to be “people for others” or “persons for others.” This phrase is borrowed from Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ who is often considered the second founder of the Society of Jesus. His full quote from 1973 is as poignant today as it was then: “Today our prime educational objective must be to form men-and-women-for-others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God… men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors…”
Ultimately, service is elemental to our faith: God made us. God loves us. God only wants to be loved back. We love God back by loving one another.
All of us are on a journey of self-discovery. To accompany others on their journeys, especially when they are suffering and in need, is to realize that we are truly connected to one another and co-dependent. To separate ourselves from one another is to separate ourselves from God. Jesus teaches this same concept of connection in Matthew’s gospel about judgement day: “‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’”
Being a person-for-others is not about seeking reward or avoiding punishment; it is a mindset that leads to spiritual growth and discovery. By serving others we can become more fully ourselves in our dualistic state as both human and spiritual beings. Becoming an agent for positive change in the lives of others – even on a small scale – should embolden us to do even more and on an even larger scale. In service, we glimpse a part of ourselves in the other person and we realize that we truly do belong to one another. We see the world and ourselves differently. “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:12)
How incredibly gratifying to see that line of students at the Campus Ministry table this week. It wasn’t a bake sale or some special food offering. It was students taking up the invitation to something that feeds a deeper hunger in each of us – an invitation to come to know God’s love by spreading God’s love