Service Learning Reflections

There wasn’t a post last week because I spent the weekend in Benton Harbor MI with a group of college students on a service learning trip. Benton Harbor is a town that has had some tough times. You can read about Benton Harbor in this New York Times article. We stayed at First Presbyterian Church, Benton Harbor. We worked at Mosaic Resale store and helped clean a fence row  of weeds and shrubs at a lot which will be a community garden for children.

I don’t have a lot of experience on these sorts of service learning trips and I am always a bit ambivalent about how worthwhile they are. (Particularly after reading, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) . ) What follows is my personal reflection on our weekend. I do think some good things happened between the students- relationships were developed and strengthened. Did we need to go to Benton Harbor to do it? Would a weekend camp-out have accomplished the same thing? I don’t know.

How much good did we actually do? Anyone could have done the work we did. It wasn’t skilled. It wasn’t breathtakingly spectacular. Honestly, if we hadn’t been there, someone else would have done the work we did. Our main contribution was that we were there and did the work that needed to be done that weekend.   Is Benton Harbor a better place for us having been there? Only a tiny bit. But it seems to me that the smallness of our contribution is an important part of the experience.

Many of us (most of us?) would like to change the world for the better. We want to make a difference. By American standards, making a difference ought to be big and dramatic. We want to solve problems not just tinker around the edges. We certainly don’t want to rearrange the furniture to no effect. We didn’t do anything big and dramatic last weekend. It was a weekend of humble work. And that might be important. To be willing to do something small and humble because that’s what is needed at that moment. And to not overestimate my worth to the people of Benton Harbor.

We did some manual labor and slept on the church floor. I was reminded of a previous service learning trip to El Paso and the farm workers who daily, week in week out, month after month, year after year do hard manual labor and sleep on a shelter floor.  As we traveled in Benton Harbor, I saw neighborhoods with abandoned houses, broken windows, homes clearly occupied but in need of substantial repair. I was reminded of my home, in good repair, in a safe neighborhood, in a town with such a low crime rate that people often don’t bother to lock their doors. Why do I live where I do? There are many reasons. Living as I do was never guaranteed, but it all begins with my growing up as a white middle class person with access to good public schools and an affordable college degree. Why the difference? I know some reasons, some causes, but why? Why is the world this way? That’s a more difficult question.

For me the learning in our service learning weekend was recognizing how much needs to be done. And how many small acts it takes to improve a community. And how little I personally can do. All I can do is keep my eyes open for places to help and humbly offer to do what is needed. I have a responsibility to do what I can, whatever that is. To not do even the little I can do is, well, wrong. But easy. Easy to throw up my hands. Easy to shrug my shoulders. Easy to look away.

That’s why I need to go on service learning trips. To keep humble. To keep my eyes open. To keep my heart broken.

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