Take the concept of service beyond the usual assigned projects to help students develop service as a way of life.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells us that he did not come to be served but to serve and to give us an example to do the same. “To be a servant” means “to always be on duty, always thinking about how to build up the Church and bring glory to God” (Word Among Us).
But how do we go from simply assigning the service projects that so many of our young people perform to actually transforming students into committed servants? What we as educators must do is to start with the service they already perform and develop them into servants with a little guidance, patience, and perhaps a little hand-holding.
Many times, our students do not have the time or opportunity to engage in work for others until they are asked to complete a requirement for something they want or need, whether it’s a requirement for a club, a sports program, a service-learning class, or a prerequisite for the sacrament of Confirmation. These are perfect opportunities “to plant the seeds” or to engage the youth with a good experience of helping others so they want to do and “be” more.
Let us look at our initial service projects and how we can further involve the students. Many times we will have a project at school to help others that may be a monetary or “goods” collection. Unless the students are personally engaged in the activity, however, many will ask their parents on the way out the door for some money to do their part in the project. What do they learn from that? Not much. But why not make our projects more hands-on: something that the students are actually doing, something that may cost the students very little in terms of monetary expense? For example, students might make cards for residents at a senior-living home, sort gently used clothes for a homeless shelter, or make sandwiches for a lunch window at a church in the inner city. When our students are actually doing the service and witnessing their impact in making a positive change instead of just fulfilling the obligation with a donation, they may become more committed to a life of service.
Once the seed is planted, we can nurture our students to develop their service projects into connections with their faith. As educators, we can do that by remembering to integrate the Catholic social teachings and instruction of the Catholic faith into our lessons.
Many religion text books have coordinated Catholic social teachings with the scope and sequence of the text. This allows the teacher to introduce the social teaching with the content of the given chapter. The same can be done with the service in which our students participate during their years in school.
Catholic social teaching is a rich treasure of wisdom for building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society. It is in our educational settings that we can help our students see a better world for others.
In looking at our social teachings, there are some simple examples of how we can integrate the teaching with the service our students will do.
Life and Dignity of the Human Person: Our Catholic schools and parishes do a fabulous job of promoting life from conception to natural death. We see our junior- and senior-high-school students marching in Washington and visiting legislators to promote life. Some other projects may be visiting the elderly, working for Special Olympics, or supporting our troops and veterans.
Call to Family, Community, and Participation: Our Church teaches that a person is not only sacred but social. The organization of our society directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. The family is the central social institution. How can we support and strengthen it with our student service? One option could be offering babysitting to the parents of younger children. Tutoring and after-care programs assist single-parent families or families with both parents working. Some ways to assist in the community may be helping people to participate in political life by registering voters, writing Congress about important issues, or offering summer camps or achievement programs.
Rights and Responsibilities: Our Church believes that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. People have the right to an education, food, and medical care. Students enjoy collections of food, clothing, and back-to-school supplies. Other options may be hygiene bags, or food bags for students who are on the free-lunch program but do not have that food for the weekend. Older students may become informed of the Church’s position on immigration and human trafficking and develop ways to help.
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable: In a world characterized by growing prosperity for some and pervasive poverty for others, the Church proclaims that a basic moral test is “How are our most vulnerable members faring?” Service opportunities at times of disaster and in our foreign missions are popular and supported by many.
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers: Our Church teaches that the economy serves the people, not the other way around.
If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected. Our service projects might teach about the right to productive work or micro-financing to start up small businesses. We can also teach that boycotts are respected to honor a fair and just wage, as are picket lines to provide places of work with safe conditions and decent wages.
Solidarity: Learning to practice the virtue of solidarity means learning that “loving our neighbor” has global dimensions in an interdependent world. The Church teaches that the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Our young people experience solidarity when they participate in mission trips, whether they are domestic or international. Other service opportunities might involve projects that focus on a particular need to create a better environment for people, such as building wells for clean water or gathering mosquito netting for those in areas stricken with malaria.
Care of God’s Creation: We show respect for God, our Creator, by our stewardship of creation. We are living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. Our students respond to this social teaching with projects that include recycling, planting gardens, cleaning up litter, and reducing use of items that harm the environment such as plastic bottles.
A time of reflection with the students is important in developing the social teachings and relating them to the service being performed. An important component in developing students into servants (and servant leaders) is to have them keep journals about their activities and so they can express their reactions to what they witnessed. Open discussion in the classroom on topics that are related to the social teaching, and have the students develop service that is relevant are other ways to create the foundation for the students to become servants.
Much of Jesus’ teaching was done in parables, which is a narrative form of teaching and one that all students seem to remember. Sharing the stories of some servants, whether they are official saints of the Church or everyday people making a difference, is so important. Some of my favorite servant stories to share are Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, and any local person who is doing servant work.
As an educator, I have found that one of the most rewarding experiences is having my students return to me and tell me how much they learned from the opportunities I gave them. Our role as teachers allows us to plant the seed, nurture it during the times we interact with our students, and enjoy the rewards of the harvest when we see and hear from them in full bloom.
Sister Christian Price, ASCJ, is National Director of Youth and Young Adults Development at the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Inc.