Self and Community

As the Community Volunteer Coordinator for La Puente, I get to interact with a broad range of individuals and groups who are interested in serving others. For some, the interest is circumstantial, they simply want to complete court-mandated hours as quickly as possible and move forward with their lives. Others wish to make community service an enduring part of their routine, and I get the gift of helping them figure out how to do so.  I never quite know who will knock on my door next, and it certainly is a blessing to meet and be shaped by such a variety of people.

Perhaps the most humbling experience I have had here is glimpsing the eagerness of some who have requested our service to give back once they have established a basic amount of stability and security for themselves.  I grew up in various places scattered across Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota, but most of my youth was spent in the suburbs of large cities like Detroit and Chicago.  Somewhere along the way, my younger self internalized the false notion that community service was something almost exclusively engaged in by those who lived comfortable lives.  Here we were, the fortunate few, giving so generously of ourselves to the less fortunate.

My own view has expanded. Service is shown everyday by people in all walks of life. My experiences living in places as distinct as Minneapolis and Monte Vista have shown me how thin the line is between friendship and service, or between a kind neighbor and a pillar of the community.  If someone fixes a stranger’s flat tire for free because they know this person is unable to pay, is that a simple favor or an example of community service?  Is it fundamentally different from serving a meal in a soup kitchen, contributing to a fundraising effort, or being extra patient with a complaining friend?  The answer isn’t immediately self-evident, and I myself have come to believe service is as much an orienting of the soul as it is a physical activity.

This belief is based upon my regular interactions with individuals who have very little but are nevertheless acutely concerned with those who have even less.  The other day, a young lady came into my office to sign-up as a volunteer, and her story blew me away.  After years of homelessness, she now had been in a place of her own for a couple of months. Life had dealt her a pretty tough hand, but she told me she wanted to start building a different life, a life about more than just the next meal.

After our meeting, as I gazed out the window while she strode down the sidewalk, I was overcome with a sense of admiration for her.  I have met dancers with less grace and highly-educated individuals with far less nobility than she.  From where I sit on State Avenue, service looks to me like a basic human question that challenges us to seek a balance between the self and the community.  We don’t all have to answer that question the same way, but I think wrestling with it inevitably deepens us both personally and communally, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that wrestling here in the San Luis Valley.