Friday, September 12, 2014

On Community Service...

     I'll be keeping up with my Oshkosh students in doing blog posts every week or two, in our new community experience course.  This week's topic is community experience, or service, that we've done in the past.  This is a nice way of reflecting on things we've done to benefit our community before we start doing some of these things as a part of this class.
     Around the time I graduated from college, I was really interested in the history of Dorothy Day, an American convert to Catholicism and founder of the "Catholic Worker" movement, a movement among ordinary Catholics to focus on poverty in America and, eventually, peace in the world.  The Catholic Worker movement emphasizes both activism, non-violent protests in the streets, and service, quietly helping people who need help in your neighborhood.  I thought I would try to help some people in my neighborhood.
     I had recently moved from my hometown of San Francisco, California, to Washington D.C. to be a park ranger in the history-focused National Mall, where I gave tours of the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and other such marble or granite edifices.  I found out that an Episcopalian church near my apartment served a good, hot, free lunch every Saturday in the church basement, so I went and offered my services.  For a number of Saturdays, I can't remember how long, I would go and help cook, serve, and clean up these lunches.  I felt very proud of myself for doing it, though I was afraid, too, of what it would be like.  I am embarrassed to say that I continued to be proud of it, perhaps overly proud, but the fear quickly went away.  I really enjoyed those Saturdays. 
     We would arrive early, and one woman in her 30s or 40s was in charge.  Cheerful, energetic, decisive, she knew what needed to be done and directed a varying and motley crew of volunteers around.  I already knew how to cook for lots of people: I had done that in my co-op house at U.C. Berkeley.  So I often cooked.  We usually had baked chicken and mashed potatoes, with various other side dishes and desserts. 
     Serving the food was interesting: I was always amazed to see all the people who wanted to eat here on Saturday.  The basement (and its kitchen) was huge, filled with long tables and chairs.  Every Saturday the place was filled, it seemed, to capacity, and really noisy with conversation.  One Saturday, a mother of two or three children came up to us servers and angrily demanded to know why her children should eat a plate with a deformed piece of chicken.  I was the most "senior" of us three servers, so everyone looked at me and I smiled and gave the mother a new plate and took the old one into the kitchen.  Everyone seemed happy.  That memory sticks with me. 
     I think this might be the most significant bit of community service I've ever done so far.  When I started grad school a couple years later and then started teaching in universities, I usually thought I was too busy to do something like this.  But I miss it.

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