So there I was with my class of 16 Freshmen participating in a service project so they would get to know and trust one another to facilitate class discussions later. My course was entitled “Am I My Neighbor’s Keeper”? It was a writing course on poverty. So here we are in a poor neighborhood and we’ve been told by the campus service-learning center to help the people by cleaning up the neighborhood. I was the professor so I had the responsibility of getting my students to pick up the trash in this neighborhood, but how? Yes, I know, just bend, stoop and grasp–piece by piece the bits and scraps could then be tossed into the garbage cans. I didn’t like it. How would I feel if a bunch of “kids” came up my street and began to pick up stuff around my house? I would be angry.
I prayed and as I prayed I looked up and saw a steeple. There was a church on the corner of this block that my students and I had been assigned. I said, “Thank you, Lord.” and proceeded to give my students instructions on what we were going to do. They got their gardening gloves on, got the long-handled brooms out, scrub rags and hedge cutters. We went into the church parking lot and began to clean. It wasn’t but a couple of minutes when people started coming out of their houses to talk with us. We told them we were here to clean (I hope they thought I meant the church.) One older woman asked if there was anyone who wasn’t afraid of snakes that would clean out a nest of garder snakes under her porch. Her family was so afraid of them that they could not use their back door or sit on their porch. A young woman biology major said she’d be glad to help her and off she and another student went to get the snakes. The woman said her husband was sick and had been unable to do the yard work and asked if we could help her with that, too. Several others went to mow, trim hedges and pick up trash. Pretty soon some children came with a ball and some of the students joined with them in a game of basketball. The older woman told the students where the drug addicts came in the alleyway and told them to be careful so they wouldn’t get stuck with needles. Little by little, relationship by relationship the street got done. At the end of the day we talked about what had happened. It was a good learning experience for the students. They asked the people what they needed. They formed friendships and sought advice from the people on how to proceed and where it was safe and where it was not. They accepted lemonade from the older woman and laughed at the older man’s stories.
When we returned to the college bus where we met up with another group working in another part of town, my students learned that the other group had a very opposite experience. This group went onto their street and immediately began picking up the trash. They did not speak to anyone and soon found that people driving by would throw things out of their car windows at them. Upon leaving they were followed by a group of adolescent males who threw things on the ground as they “walked them out of their neighborhood”.
John Eby, retired head of the service-learning center at the college, wrote an article entitled “Service Learning is Bad”. In the article he said, “When service-learning is done
without proper selection of students and without appropriate training, orientation and reflection, it can support ineffective and sometimes harmful kinds of service….If need is defined as a deficiency and the community in need is seen as deficient, “this exaggerates the importance of the person who serves, demeans the person served and ignores resources in the community such as peers, families and community leaders”. I think Dr. Eby’s philosophical treatise on service-learning was borne out to me that day.
The Bible is real clear on where a Christian should stand on this issue. Paul writes in Romans 12:3b,c “I tell each one of you not to think you are better than you really are. Use good sense and measure yourself by the amount of faith God has given you.”
The next couple of days my posts will be about service-learning and what I learned teaching through experiences for 17 years. I hope you will come by to catch a good story or two.
All is grace,