Sunday, May 3, 2009

Service Learning

Part of the hypothesis that we carry into this project is that the ends of traditional pilgrimages are now met in other forms, of which two might be immersion experiences and service learning programs. Our pilgrimage will be followed by two immersions--but what about service learning?

Before coming to Berkeley, I taught at a small Franciscan-affiliated university in the mid-west. During my time there I started a service learning class as an option for students needing to fulfill their theology requirement. The students committed to spend 5-8 hours a week in direct service (i.e., no stuffing envelopes or administrative work,) at a service site of their choice. Students commonly spent their hours at a local VA hospital, a nursing home, or a local school. Class time was not unlike some forms of group spiritual direction, where students would share and reflect together on the events of their week. Reading was light, but short papers were turned in every week.

The reflection papers over the semester followed certain patterns from class to class. At first, the new task of service was just another obligation in the already-crammed schedules of the undergraduates. Their reflections dwelt on shuffling other commitments, learning the ropes in a new place, learning names, and other prosaic details. In the next stage, generally about 3 weeks in, for some students the time had become routine. Mrs. Johnson at the home wanted to place Scrabble AGAIN, AS ALWAYS, and the old lady was an absolute shark at the game. Mr. Benson wanted to talk about his time on active duty 30 years ago, and his recent medical problems. Young Shelly still can't quite get her times tables down, and clearly she gets no encouragement at home at all. Reflections were about steadiness--service was something they showed up to do, and they were welcomed for the help they offered.

But then, about 6 weeks in, for some students, something changed. They began to speak of their service as a welcome break, but even more, an experience of a kind of companionship based on--well, based on nothing beyond the students showing up. It wasn't so much the score of the Scrabble game (always dutifully reported,) but the fact of the shuffling of tiles and reconnection of the people over the board. It wasn't like family--family is a given, not chosen in the way these connections were chosen. It wasn't friendship, because these connections weren't freely chosen, either, and often crossed boundaries of age, class and experience that friendships rarely can. It became something like simply being human together, welcomed and valued just for breathing the same air. Reflections went deep--WHY is Scrabble so important? What's the source of the real joy at finally getting all the way through the Twelves on the times tables? Why does Mr. Benson's family never seem to have time just to visit, when they live right in town?

And when Mr. Benson died, the student who'd been with him all through the end of his life noted that he'd never thought of that wing of the VA as a place where people went to die, but of course, he said, it is. I asked if Mr. Benson's death made him think about his own mortality--and immediately another student snapped "Why do you ask that?" I said, well, sometimes, when we're with someone we know who passes away...and she said "because my own work at the nursing home makes me think about that." We were all silent for a bit, and then spoke of the brilliance and frailty of human life.

One of the essentials of pilgrimage is the shared experience of the trek with others sharing the trail. Pilgrims leave behind the markers of our status--the education or the jobs or the responsibilities that make us significant contributors to our societies. Pilgrims really contribute nothing to the larger world in terms of work done or money made. We are slackers on the move. Traditionally, of course, pilgrims begged alms for their support--as if not contributing our labor to the common cause weren't bad enough, we were a drain on the rightful earnings of those from whom we begged our bread. But the bonds among pilgrims, and at least sometimes, the bond between almsgivers and the pilgrims they fed, was one based on nothing other than breathing the same air. We value each other and are valued because we share the brilliance and frailty of human life, and that's enough. My students started as almsgivers, donating their time to those who they thought they could help. They did help. But what they were given--some of them--was an insight that, like the people they served, they were valuable just for being, not for anything they did or how well they might do it. A brilliant, fragile insight that turned them into pilgrims, too.

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