Service—Thoughts from a Novice
Service—Thoughts from a Novice
As I finish lunch on this cloudy April day, I can’t help but continue to feel overwhelmed by the amount of challenges, genuine need and opportunities to engage that I see around me. In times of great need, paralysis can sometimes be our defense mechanism. How can someone like me make a difference in this great sea of complex challenges and troubles? I hope that you will allow me, someone who is not an expert on the topic of service or community engagement, to share a few thoughts I’ve collected over the years on why service matters, especially for us working at a Christ-centered institution.
At my last institution, I was so very fortunate to work alongside Ashley Farmer-Hanson, Ed.D., an expert in civic engagement and service learning (Buena Vista University was a Carnegie-classified institution and was yearly on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll—a truly top-notch program). One thing Ashley always stressed to students, staff and faculty alike was the significance of doing community needs assessments before beginning any type of community engagement regionally, nationally and/or internationally. While serving because we want to help is important, service performed without targeted objectives is often ineffective at best, and harmful at worst. We all believe that service provides us with a sense of accomplishment and gives us a good feeling; however, service for the primary purpose of basking in those good feelings is missing the point. Ashley always wanted to make sure that service and community engagement were about solutions. It was joining forces and coming alongside others to meet the complex needs of real people and real communities.
I briefly lived in Uganda, Africa, from 2010-2012. During this time, I learned of well-meaning organizations that would send shoes, clothes and other donated or fund-raised items to the “poor children of Africa.” Their zeal for service demanded that they do something; however this perceived need was not anywhere near the greatest that these people had. Clean water, access to medicine and educational opportunities were far higher up on their list of needs than donated American clothes. To add to this, Africans have been consistently challenged to develop their own successful clothing and shoe industries because of the influx of free items coming from the states and other developed nations, thus adding to their reliance on continual and sustained donations from the states. Those sending the donated items to villages in Uganda were, without a doubt, well intentioned. However, they were not in touch with the community needs as they opted not to assess before engaging. When I consider what was missing, it became clear that it was humility. When serving, there cannot be the notion of a superior group helping a group that is needy. Service that honors God must include the realization that we’re all members of broken humanity, we all have gifts that can be used to serve others and we all need to allow others the opportunity to serve us as well.
I recognize this concept to be alive in the Fresno Pacific Idea as well. The opening sentence of the section “Fresno Pacific University is Prophetic” states: “Fresno Pacific University believes that to be prophetic is to serve the church and society by engaging in dialogue with and critique of contemporary culture and practice.” Within that same paragraph it continues with “It offers leadership to the church and the world by enabling persons to extend perceptive, creative and skillful responses to current issues.” I would venture to guess that only in doing proper community needs assessments can we genuinely “extend perceptive, creative and skillful responses.” Fresno Pacific University students, staff and faculty are encouraged to meet needs head on and assume responsibility to thoughtfully engage and serve our campus community, Southeast Fresno the Central Valley and beyond. FPU’s GEIST calls us to prioritize “Serving Courageously” as one of the five tenets of our strategic map. To do this well and meet this very important goal, we must continually come together to engage in the type of strategic dialogue that will provide a road map indicating how best to serve the communities we belong to.
First Peter 4:10-11 states: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” As I continue to reflect on these verses, I’m challenged to push myself out of my comfort zone, to continue to use the gifts God’s given me to meet needs in my community.
My friends and colleagues at FPU, I’m honored to serve with so many who do this work far better than I do. Your commitment to our students, the Valley and our location in Southeast Fresno is inspirational. Randy White, I think of you and the great work you do with the Center for Community Transformation. Sheri Wiedenhoefer, I’m encouraged by your Center for Peacemaking team’s restorative work within the community. Linda Hoff and others engaged in The Fresno D.R.I.V.E. Initiative, your service to this Valley in solving educational access issues is truly motivating. The list goes on and on. May God continually grant all of us the love, wisdom, motivation and strength to continue to radically engage the cultures and serve the cities.