Magen Morse, Purcellville, VA
April 14, 2013
One hot July, when I was nearly fourteen, I volunteered to pay my way to work for a few weeks for the U.S. Forest Service. Along with the other high school students, we would work in northern Utah clearing brush from trails, picking up trash along the highway, and doing various other projects. I had answered an ad in the local newspaper, but I soon found out that those of us who volunteered for an adventure were in the minority to those whose parents or parole officers were sending them off as a way to build character and citizenship. The cheap “Outward Bound” version. What did I know about character and citizenship at almost 14? What might have made me want to work hard for no pay during my summer vacation?
Looking back, I think, I had been trained in equal parts idealism and service. I was an active member of my religious faith, and I had very clear ideas of my moral obligations to myself and others around me. In my religion community, I had energetic youth leaders who found opportunities for us to serve in a variety of ways: we cleaned, babysat, did yard work, prepared food, and visited nursing homes. These leaders found opportunities for us to do lots of other things besides serving others – we were signed up for contests in 4-H, sent to outdoor, sleep-away girl’s camps, asked to be leaders of the other girls, to speak in front of the congregation during worship services, and to sing (off-key) in small groups for those same gatherings.
What had already happened for me before I even turned 14 can be boiled down to two ideas: confidence and opportunity. All this experience in an accepting environment led to confidence in my abilities. All this experience and opportunity in a variety of activities showed me that it was possible to participate in the wider world. Additionally, there was the imperative of serving God through serving our fellow men – and with God nothing was impossible, we were taught. Therefore, I could volunteer to go with a bunch of strangers hundreds of miles away from home, with autonomy, and trust, and faith.
On the radio last month, I heard a man talking about how hard it was for an atheist to organize humanitarian work with other atheists. He explained that he wasn’t dispassionate or uncaring about the needs of others in the world; but the simple fact was that their organization was necessarily lacking. I see this as a daunting problem: how do you teach confidence and opportunity without an organized group? It is important to me that a vital offshoot of religious faith is in constructing a place to teach the nitty gritty of community organization in addition to teaching the moral imperative of building a strong community. Today one of the most effective tools I have is my faith community because it helps me teach my children those increasingly hard concepts of character and citizenship.
Last Saturday, I stood beside my 12 year old son, in front of a bright yellow funnel and big boxes of rice, soy, and dried vegetables. We were assembling into plastic bags, meals for 150,000 people to be sent to another country. He had, of his own volition, signed up to help and I was his enthusiastic ride to the elementary school where the assembly was taking place. He is a part of a faith community with leaders interested in assisting him in finding opportunities to serve and ways to build his confidence; it was those leaders who had passed around the sign-up sheet during their meeting. I asked him why he signed up, he said, “I thought it would be good to help people.” Building confidence by providing opportunities to help others also means that we all look more often outside ourselves to the greater needs around us. We want to help because we know it is good and makes our world a better world.
When I was a kid, my organized religious community saw to it that I was given the opportunity and confidence to be a self-sufficient and contributing member of my community. Today, my moral imperative as a Christian demands that I serve others; but, my effectiveness in doing so comes from my training in my faith community.