Ever since I was young, I have been involved in community service of one kind or another. My church had required hours for religion class each year and my parents would plan family volunteering activities, but I always saw these as more of an obligation than anything else. I didn’t mind going and doing whatever activity I was supposed to but once my actual time there was over so was my experience. I thought that that simply going somewhere and helping out someone else who was disadvantaged in someway was all that community service was about, but last year the reality of what service experiences actually are finally clicked for me.
Last year though, I participated in Spring Break Outreach and went to New Orleans. I painted rooms and windows, plastered walls, planted trees, worked at a community center, and heard tales of devastation and struggle from people still trying to get their lives together five years after Hurricane Katrina. However, I later came to realize that the actual activities I participated weren’t as important as what they facilitated. Being in New Orleans for a whole week allowed me to really submerge myself in the experience, and I started trying to understand not what the people needed but why they were in this terrible situation in the first place. I started actually talking to them and trying to understand their lives rather than merely focusing on what I could physically do for them.
While I physically traveled somewhere for this experience, I think the more important form of travel I ended up engaging in was internal, and I didn’t end with my external journey. By going on this trip, I was able to recognize the importance of getting to know individual people and their circumstances prior to passing judgment on them, I grew to understand how great the injustices within this country can be, and I also learned new things about myself. I think that service can be a form of travel on numerous levels; you can travel physically to do service in another place and you can travel outside your comfort zone to serve people radically different than yourself, but the critical form of travel in service is the internal journey that it facilitates allowing you to grow as an individual.
In Peter-Hans Kolvenbach’s address, “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education” he expresses this same idea of service as a type of travel that ultimately results in personal growth. He states that only way for students to become responsible and justice-promoting individuals is to instill them with these values through direct experiences. Kolvenbach says, “Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection” (34). The personal decision to work towards a just world cannot be made based solely on someone telling you that this is the right or moral thing to do; it is a choice and set of values that can only be adopted after personal insight and growth.
Service is presented as a means by which this personal growth can be achieved and by which students can grow to understand and work towards solving the immense injustices that exist in today’s world. It is important to note however, that service alone will not instill students with certain values or beliefs. This is the mistake I made when I was younger, believing that service is only about what you do. Rather, the internal travel that is sparked by service is the important aspect because this allows students to grow as individuals, understand the injustices on a deep level, and make the decision that something needs to be done about them. Kolvenbach says, “ the measure of Jesuit universities is not what our students do but who they become and the adult Christian responsibility they will exercise in the future towards their neighbor and their world” (35).
The Jesuits wish to instill their students with a sense of faith and also justice, and they have come to realize that these are not things that can be forced upon a person but rather things a person must come to embrace on their own. Kolvenbach suggests that service and first-hand experience with injustice are an important part of the Jesuit education because they facilitate and encourage students to participate in internal travel. Internal travel provides a means through which you can get to know yourself and develop your own personal values regardless of what they will be, and service is a good way to encourage and spark this internal journey.