Articles From the March 1995 Unification News


Service? Why Me?

by Rev. Kathy Winings-NYC

The average person puts in a forty hour work week, has a family to support, bills to pay, may develop a great case of stress, and generally works even harder to make sense of their lives and the world in which we live. In between all of these responsibilities, we read of conflicts between nations, ethnic divisions disrupting normal life, corporate downsizing, layoffs, increasing violence, and natural catastrophes affecting millions of people. On top of all of this, we are asked to give, serve, and reach out to others. While deep within our hearts, we have the desire to go this extra mile, still we find ourselves asking whether it is worth our time. Do I really have the time to undertake a service activity? Can service really become a part of my life and the life of my family? I can barely feed by own family- how can I possibly afford to help others?

Living for the sake of others has always been a central tenet within Unificationism. But the principle behind this tenet is more than a denominational or religious principle. It is a whole-life principle, a spiritual principle which goes beyond our finite life. On a personal level, when we work hard, we not only earn good money, but we generally feel good about what we have done. All of which is in proportion to how much we give out on the job. The same holds true for whatever we do. Whatever we put out always comes back to us in kind. And it holds equally true for our acts of service. The principle of give and take action is true. In other words, as a give and take relationship is formed, we can feel a sense of satisfaction and joy.

The concept of service and having compassion for those in need is not a recent phenomena. Its roots are biblical. Within the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of God as not only mighty and vengeful, but as merciful, just, and compassionate. The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament are also indicative of a compassionate and caring God. Those of us who grew up in Christian homes may remember the numerous images of a loving Jesus reaching out to help the sick, the lame, and the poor. Furthermore, Jesus encouraged his followers to do likewise. The Judeo-Christian perspective, though, is not the only religious root of service. Religious texts for Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism and other faiths have also indicated that as human beings with a conscience and sense of morality, we have a responsibility to care for those in need and those less fortunate. A common thread, however, present in each faith perspective is the profound relationship between service and the family. The contribution of the various religious attitudes toward service is precisely this strong sense of family as the basis for serving and the healthy attitudes which this encourages.

A Mixed History

Historically, the philosophy and practice of service within the United States has been mixed. Initially, during the 17th and 18th Centuries, the family was seen as the beginning point of service-it was the family as a whole who took responsibility for each other. When one was in need, the other members of the family reached out to take care of that individual. The family became, then, the central and most essential source of serving. The next ring of support was the church. This was only natural as the church was felt to be the family writ large. The third and final ring of support was the community as a whole. Again, as the communities were fairly small and intimate, the community was another extended aspect of the family. With these three levels of support, the needs of all individuals were then met-with love and compassion. As one of the early leaders, William Bradford, described it, serving those in need was done "" willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing true love unto their friends and brethren."

However, as our communities grew and expanded, this system broke down. As we began to shift from a rural to an urban society, the needs for service and social support began to outstrip the existing support structure. Consequently, to fill in the gaps, special organizations, community agencies, and church associations began to develop specific service programs. These included the many Societies such as the Female Charitable Society, the New York Orphan Asylum Society, the Ladies Benevolent Society, the Charitable Association of Young Men, the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, the Hebrew Relief Society and hundreds of other like-minded agencies. With time, these agencies became more sophisticated and complex. Following the example of Jane Addams' Hull House, succeeding decades saw numerous Missions, Homes, and Shelters added to the list of charitable outlets available to those in need.

Each program that was developed accomplished a great deal of good. Some of these outlets were able to help hundreds of families get back on their feet again. However, these programs also generated a great deal of debate. Two points in particular are important for us today. One issue revolved around "who" was responsible for providing social service and compassion. The second issue focused on the "why" of service.

Who is responsible?

First, who was responsible for social compassion and service? Should service programs be the purview of governmental agencies, religious organizations, private associations, or the family? Each voice that was heard in this debate had a vested interest in the outcome. For example, within the Protestant realm, a raging debate took place during the later half of the 19th Century between the more conservative aspect of Christianity and those who were labeled the liberal wing of American Christianity. Those who espoused the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbush and Washington Gladden felt that the church had a central role in alleviating the problem. In fact, the gospel compelled the church to do what it could to end suffering. This meant committing financial resources, personnel and the moral authority of the church to the cause of social justice.

For others within the church, social service represented a liberalizing of the church's essential mission and theology. While this group acknowledged that there were serious problems facing many unfortunate people, this was a spiritual problem. The way to resolve the problem, therefore, was not to direct money to the social programs but to evangelize more strongly. After all, the root of the problem was, basically, sin-original and personal sin. That required a renewed push to witness about God's salvific plan through Jesus Christ. This is not to say that they did not care about the poverty, devastation, hunger, and homelessness that was prevalent. It was just that they saw the answer differently than the social gospel proponents.

Those who worked within the governmental arena also debated this issue. Should the government assume responsibility for social service or is this a private enterprise? If the governmental agencies are the answer, should it be the responsibility of the federal, state, or local structure? Can the government afford such programs? On the other hand, can the government afford not to design such programs? If the government became involved, how would they network with other private, non-governmental agencies and individuals?

The second issue, however, was more important in my opinion. This was the question of why do service in the first place? Previously the motivating philosophy embraced a family-oriented concept of responsibility. One took care of the other because they were family. One served out of love. The quality of heart, then, was clearly a factor.

As programs for social service were developed outside of the realm of the family, however, the motivation became more mixed. What I have described as the family perspective remained as part of the mix. However, other non-family-oriented philosophies became motivations for why one served. One strong philosophy saw the "why" of service to be that of guilt. You were supposed to serve others because you had something that those in need didn't have. Secondly, some served because their ethical/moral sensibilities, conscience or religious experience somehow told them that, that is what one was supposed to do; in short, service was the mark of a "good" person. I don't wish to give the impression that these are necessarily inappropriate motivations. We all serve others for a variety of very complex reasons. What I wish to suggest is that the problem with these competing philosophies and motivations has been their effort on the long-term view of service. This is what I call the problem of the paternalistic versus the parental philosophy of service.

The family-based motivation for service encouraged each person to have compassion on others out of love for the other. This was, originally, a love that was free of condescension and judgment. It was a quality of heart that encouraged a basic sense of respect for the individual being cared for and tried to foster a sense of unconditional love. The family-based concept of service was more capable of engendering a parental view. It also encouraged other attributes. Attributes within the one being served: personal responsibility, a sense of empowerment, a willingness to re-build one's life among others. All of which are qualities that parents strive to instill in their children.

As social service expanded and the family-based view was de- emphasized, this quality of heart was also de-emphasized. As these other rationales for service entered the mix, it became easier for the less desirable feelings of condescension and judgment to become part and parcel of the hidden philosophy for why one lived for the sake of others. For instance, if one began with a feeling of guilt, it was only a short step to feeling separated from those in need. Guilt became a question of "I" have and "you" don't. This was the basis for the next problem-arrogance. Arrogance bred condescension. This only increased the sense of separation. Condescension was just a step away from judging those who were being served. At that point, one's outreach to the other was no longer based on heart. This, I believe, is why social service became filled with a paternalistic attitude.

At the receiving end

For those on the receiving end, it became increasingly difficult to receive aid and support. There was no personal relationship established. There was no give and take of love, respect and dignity. Also, there was no motivation to move forward with one's life. It was difficult to feel motivated to take personal responsibility and be willing to rebuild one's life in this judgmental and condescending environment. Personal confidence and self-esteem were diminished. For others, it was difficult to receive this "conditional" handout. It was demeaning to be in such a position. For others still, without a feeling of personal responsibility and growth, it became easier and easier to just let take, take, take. Eventually, several reasons to continue receiving aid were formulated such as: (1) society owes me; (2) it makes the "rich" people feel good; or (3) things will not improve-there are forces beyond my control at work.

However, we live in a time in which we can reclaim the parental view of giving and living for the sake of others. In this sense, service is simply a natural part of our life and can be accomplished in a variety of ways. With a heart of true love, we can serve the other out of a deep and endless well-spring of love. We do not need to have a great deal of money or possessions to be qualified to give. If we are living out of this well-spring of love, we are free to feel whatever gift we have to offer, to the other. There will be times when the gift that is needed is spiritual uplifting and knowledge. There will be other times when the gift that is needed may be something physical such as food, clothing, books, a home, medicine or simply a helping hand. And, there will be times when the gift that is needed is something that the "other" can give to you. After all, service is not a one-way street. Service and living for the sake of others is a relational activity. Service must also allow the "other" the opportunity to grow, develop, and give as well. Only then can the love of God be felt and practiced throughout the entire "family."

In essence, what the parental paradigm requires of us is to give of ourselves-of our heart-and not just some external item or thing. Only a parental paradigm allows us to reclaim the biblical sense of God's compassion in every sense of the word, thus allowing a true relationship of give and take to develop. In short, I believe that service is not a question of how much you have or what you have. Rather, it is a question of who and what you are.

I believe that if we can see living for the sake of others in this light, then we will be able to joyfully make room for a life of service in our hearts as well as within our families. As the philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore wisely said:

"I slept and dreamed that life was happiness. I awoke and saw that life was service. I served and found that in service, happiness is found."

Rev. Winings is the Executive Director of IRFF as well as the Director of Ecumenical Affairs and National Co-coordinator of UCMA.


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