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Reimagining Service

The following is a response to the book from Boston College senior Sean O’Rourke, as part of a course on “Faith, Service, and Solidarity.”

“Doing Good…Says Who?” was a tremendously rewarding book to read this week. The text taught me so much about the context, background and world views that I and anyone else from a privileged position may bring when trying to serve.

I could see myself so easily in the shoes of each character throughout the book; that is, each character from the West. Ellie’s first judgmental impression and outlook were similar to those I have noticed on service trips, Lucy’s energy and enthusiasm were relatable, and the men and women in the group of the third chapter had the same desires to “help” as me!

The challenge of this book, however, is to look at our collective lives in another way. To recognise that we Westerners are not saviours, but equals. Greg Boyle SJ would say that our goal in serving is to be in kinship with one another, and to have compassion – that is to be with those who suffer. This book just puts those ideas in secular terms.

On Arrupe this past winter break, I wondered what we as a collective could bring on the trip with us for the people, and after reading this, I know that my initial checklist was way off… Books, (probably in English – which they couldn’t read), supplies, and food wouldn’t get to the heart of any structural problems that the people face. The best thing to pack would probably be an open mind, heart, and willingness to feel broken and helpless.

Our one week trips to foreign countries aren’t really capable of changing anything, but it’s often hard for us to recognise that as Westerners who receive such a feel-good factor from participating in them.

With regard to being helped, I know from a personal standpoint that as a child I needed my parents to do things for me. And I was very happy for them to do it for a long time, because their insight and expertise generally got me further along the path to what was deemed “success.”

However, nothing has been so liberating as becoming independent from them while at college. I have loved, I will say it again, LOVED doing things for myself since breaking away from a closed-knit family unit back home. The people of this book and elsewhere are no different. They too can be empowered and worked-with to affect positive, lasting change in their communities, as the numerous examples of this book show. It just takes a change in mind-set, and a shifting in one’s standing position to see that they don’t need to be “helped”, in ways that we usually believe.

I think that the whole book can be summed up in the words of Lilla Watson, who was quoted earlier in one of the readings of this course, saying: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We would do well to heed to such advice as we embark on our journey as ‘BC Eagles’, who typically strive to “Ever Rise to New Heights”. Maybe in our haste movements, huge appetites, and deep desires to set the world aflame, we could first consider what the ground of the earth actually looks like, then encounter and embrace the small embers we find, already lighting.