A highly principled man, my dad has always taken his job as a father seriously. Lessons and lectures have been par for the course my whole life, and I sat in my room more than once to “think about it” after I did something wrong. When I was a teenager Dad was constantly dragging me along to do something, and I believed it was my obligation to whine whenever I thought I could get away with it.
That included the first time I remember hopping into the old van that he drove every Thursday.
“Where are we going?” I asked, honestly unsure.
“To the food bank downtown,” he said, straight-faced as always.
“Why? Our food bank’s at the church. Isn’t this the church’s van?”
“We’re going to bring food from the food bank downtown back to the church.”
“Why doesn’t someone else do that?”
“That’s what we’re doing, bud.”
“Because you don’t take something without giving something in return.”
Whether shoveling the next door neighbor’s snowy walks, sleeping in a half-built Habitat for Humanity house to keep it from being vandalized, or painting the walls of the neighborhood nonprofit that hosted all my mom’s programs for kids, giving back is simply what we did in our family. I learned early that no matter how poor or rich we felt, we had to give back to the larger community that gave us so much.
We can get engaged in our own lives by giving back to the larger communities that every day, in so many ways, give back to us, whether or not we are aware of it. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once implored the world to acknowledge this, writing in his 1963 book Strength to Love,
“We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.”
Today, with so many of us wrapped up in social media and global technology, it may seem simplistic to think about the production cycle to show our need for connection. However, I want to take that global perspective and think about it locally in our own lives. These are our motivations for how we relate to others.
- Do you have a parent who stays with your child when you are at work?
- Who are the neighbors who check on your house when you are traveling?
- Does the professor add extra time to his day to send you email alerting you of the test tomorrow?
- When you were younger, who were the adults in your life that kept an eye on you after school?
- Did that volunteer election official greet you at the voting booth last week?
All of these people, and many, many others are contributing their time to your well-being every single day, whether or not you see it.
I see the need for this type of honesty throughout my professional life working with community volunteers, nonprofit managers, social workers, and teachers, among others. Our motivations for how we relate to others always shine through in the quality of our work on behalf of others. Reflected in how well students learn in schools, these motivations also become obvious in places of worship in how well congregations relate to the world around them. The motivations are obvious, too, in our perceptions of others, including whether we see others with apathy, pity, sympathy, charity, empathy, and solidarity. They become apparent in the actions and reactions of the giver and the receiver of the service.
Upon her release from 16 years of house arrest by the Myanmar regime in 2010, the democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, said, “I do not believe that I’m sacrificing. In fact, I feel very uneasy when others used the word sacrifice to describe my life. It sounds like I’m demanding returns for my investments. I chose to walk on this journey, because I solely believed in it and wholeheartedly decided to do so, and I’m willing and able to pay for the consequences…”