I was a Boy Scout for several years in my youth. The Scouts and I weren’t the best fit, but I made it up to the rank of Star – a disagreement with my Scoutmaster over whether or not I’d actually completed the requirements for Life would be my excuse for eventually taking my ball and going home. I have a few fond and vague memories of my time in the khaki uniform, most of which involved doing incredibly stupid things with fire. One thing, however, has remained with me rather vividly over the years: the service project. Round about my freshmen year of high school, my friend Stephen was on the home stretch towards becoming an Eagle Scout, a feat which required him to plan and execute a major community service project with the help of his fellow scouts. And so, one hot Saturday morning a dozen or so uniformed teenagers started unloading lumber and sacks of concrete from the backs of pickup trucks and headed off down one of the trails at the local park, where Stephen had gotten the approval of the city to build a fitness course. We spent the day putting up exercise stops along the trail. Stephen got a “thank you” visit from the mayor, and we all got our picture in the paper. All in all a rewarding day. That was my first real glimpse into what I’ll call the glamorous side of service – work that makes the community a better place, a more obviously beautiful place, but also gets you recognized.
My experiences in the less glamorous side of service would soon follow. To earn the Star rank, I was required to take on a personal service project, just me on my own. I sat around stumped for several weeks, unable to figure out what to do (or at least what to do that would have the public impact that Stephen’s fitness trail had made). Finally, my mother (a social worker who knew what was where in town) sent me down the hill to the local homeless shelter. Our Father’s House served the homeless men of the city, giving them a place to sleep and a few meals a day while they tried to get back on their feet.
The shelter put me to work cleaning up around the house – gathering laundry, making beds, cleaning bathrooms. Bathrooms! At that point in my life, I didn’t even clean the bathroom in my own home. It was work that forced me to get over my bad teenage self. Humbling work, and decidedly not glamorous. No one was lining up to take a picture of me cleaning toilets in a homeless shelter, or driving around to the local restaurants picking up the remains of the previous evening’s dinner service, saving it all from a wasteful early death in a dumpster. Besides myself, my parents, and the staff of the shelter (and, eventually, my Scoutmaster), no one would know what I’d done. Not even the residents would know it was me who’d washed their sheets and scrubbed their toilet that day (I worked during the hours that the guests were expected to be out either working or looking for work). All they knew was they had a hot dinner to return to, along with a clean bed and bath – a little bit of dignity in a typically undignified situation.
That’s the other side of service: hard work for little public reward, work that doesn’t change the world in one fell swoop of concrete and pressurized lumber, but rather transforms it one little gift of human dignity at a time. Both kinds matter, but the latter is often the more abundant and necessary. Often we go looking for the big fix and grow dejected when either we can’t find it, or it doesn’t accomplish what we hoped. Often we overlook the latter, because it’s hard to see what difference it will make in the face of all the change that this wounded world requires. But none of us are Atlas. Our shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry the weight of the world’s needs, but they are strong enough to toss a few starfish back into the ocean. The greatest service we can do is to lift up the person right in front of us, waiting for that moment of dignity.