Faith & Service-Learning: Embracing Difficult Questions

June 5, 2012

By Jessica Friedrichs

The Seventh National Faith-Based Service-Learning Conference held at Messiah College near Harrisburg, PA this weekend embraced difficult conversations.  For those of us in the world of local and global service-learning difficult conversations abound.  For some of us, the concept of “faith-based” may even be where they begin.  Although many practitioners of service-learning, as well as the institutions that support them, are faith-based, the field as a whole is rarely explicit in this regard.  The broad trend toward encompassing service-learning under the broader banner of civic or community engagement is evidence of this emphasis (see AAC&U’s recent publication “A Crucible Moment“).  This broad banner includes people of all stripes and the work of democracy depends on it.

When, as a spiritual but not religious person myself, I joined the faculty at Carlow University, a Sisters of Mercy Catholic institution in Pittsburgh, PA, I wanted to bring them up to speed on such linguistic and cultural shifts.  I was hired to serve in the role of Service-Learning Coordinator and Instructor in the School for Social Change.  This was four years ago and they had not yet established a name for the center that would house service-learning and similar initiatives.  In my zest to be on the cutting edge, I explained the trends in the field:  service-learning as a term was going out of fashion – now, I said, it’s about developing a civic purpose; it’s about moving students beyond what I saw as a more charity-driven religious model.  And then the Sisters of Mercy schooled me – in their gentle, powerful way, they rooted me in a tradition that began with Catherine McAuley educating women in Ireland over 150 years ago and today holds a worldwide membership of Sisters focused on the five critical social justice concerns of: nonviolence, racism, earth, women and immigrants.

Service is a vital word to the Sisters – in fact, they take an additional vow beyond the traditional ones of poverty, chastity and obedience and that vow is service.  Civic engagement just doesn’t quite “do it” as a term for those with a profound spiritual call.  Sister Sheila Carney described the concept of Mercy to me as one of contemplation and action. She says, “Contemplation and action, prayer and service, mysticism and prophesy, Sabbath and justice, an ardent desire to be united to God and serve the poor – however you name it, this is the heartbeat of what it means to walk the path of Mercy.”  I attended the conference partly to present this powerful concept as one that I feel can inform and invigorate service-learning pedagogy.  And to learn from others whose work in our field is inspired not only by their civic duty, but also by their spiritual commitment

I was not disappointed.  Chad Frey, conference organizer and Director of Messiah College’s Agape Center brought his thoughtful, creative sense of hospitality to the weekend.  The opening dinner was accompanied by music and the work of local artist Liz Laribee with the goal of engaging us in a process of reflection and community-building along with personal relaxation as we unwind from the busy semester (He even arranged for massage therapy to be provided on the second night – other conference organizers, please take some direction from this man!).

Maureen Curly, President of Campus Compact kicked us off with the question that inspired this posting:  “How and when do we have the difficult conversations about the lines that divide us?”  In response she shared models such as the “Ask Big Questions” initiative of Hillel as well as the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network and encouraged us to create these kinds of physical and mental spaces on our campuses. She also encouraged us to think about how we can continue to broaden the conversation of service-learning/civic engagement to truly tackle social injustice.  As a model, she presented Warren Wilson College’s new mandate for students to reflect on root causes in their service-learning courses and to develop a formal plan for continued action post-graduation (as well as the University’s recognition of social justice/policy work as fulfilling their service-learning requirement).

The next morning, we dove into a difficult dialogue right away as we explored international faith-based service-learning.  As part of a panel presentation, Ryan Keith, President of Forgotten Voices International, shared some of his challenges and wisdom. He worried aloud about an age in which “passport stamps are the spiritual badges” of Christian students who engage in his organization’s work of equipping churches in Zimbabwe and Malawi to care for children who have been orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He spoke of the power and danger of social media in serving as a conduit for their experiences and reflected on how we can help students to tell stories that don’t perpetuate stereotypes about poverty and foreign cultures.  One of his responses to these challenges is to engage the concept of storytelling as service.  He drew on Marshall Ganz’s public narrative theory and reminded leaders in this work to probe students to go deeper in their thinking and truly embrace an ethos organized around human dignity.

At the end of this session, an audience member brought up a particularly difficult issue unique to her work with Christian students.  She finds that they are able to be open-minded about crossing boundaries of race, ethnicity and class but when it comes to religion, they are challenged.  This is an area that I feel puts some distance between those in the Christian community and others who engage in global service-learning or international development work.  As we work to build global citizens, we must fundamentally respect the dignity of all people and so any attitude that could be divisive or oppressive seems counter to our work.  Keith was ready with a response that his organization often shares with such students:  “I want to be part of a church that is know for what God is for, not what God is against.  God’s love is boundless for all people.  God is part of the hard stuff – the transformative.”   Later in a session focused on the same topic, Drs. Marion Larson and Sara Shady from Bethel University engaged us more deeply in this same question drawing on the works of Martha Nussbaum, Eboo Patel, Miroslav Volf and many others in developing a model for experiential learning that explicitly challenges faith boundaries.

I saw in these dialogues and throughout the conference, a thoughtful approach to the unique challenges of faith-based service-learning – and the profound, spiritual  inspiration of those that engage in it.   Attendees, presenters, students, administrators, faculty and community partners were truly ready to dive into the difficult together.  The conference also hosted presenters from Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist perspectives.  Most importantly, people did not shy away from the hardest question of all:  how can we change society and our world to promote more justice and equality.  That’s a difficult dialogue we all have a stake in.

Jessica Friedrichs is a Faculty Member in the School for Social Change and Coordinator of Service-Learning at Carlow University. She has taught service-learning courses in Bolivia, Jamaica, The Navajo Nation, Northern Ireland, and Tanzania. She currently concentrates on local service-learning in Pittsburgh, PA and is conducting research on its impact on first-generation college students.

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