This Saturday I will gather in the parking lot of our church with 20 high school students and eight other adults as we get ready to leave on our summer service learning trip. We will spend the next week in Buchanan County, VA where we will put new roofs on two homes, repair floors another home and finish a bathroom which has been added onto the house of a older woman. Important work that will make these homes safer and more secure for the families who live in them.
But, beyond the work we will do and the friendships and relationships that will be made, we will talk. We will talk about the meaning of service and about what we are learning about ourselves and about one another and about the community in which we will be living and working. And, we will take another step in that journey of putting words and experience around faith and values which will deepen our understanding of neighbor and lay the foundation for an attitude of service which, hopefully, will stretch into a lifetime.
Recently, there has been much discussion about experiences like the one we will have next week. Do they really make a difference? Do we do them just to feel good about ourselves? Could our money be better used in another way? All are valid questions that those of us who lead trips like this dare not forget. They need to linger on the edge of every nail we pound and every conversation we have so we don’t fall into that trap of toxic charity. In the end, the goal is not just to do the work we have been asked to do, but to move beyond charity which maintains a safe distance between us and them and move towards compassion and relationship where the walls between us begin to crumble and in which the other becomes a part of our world and we become a part of theirs.