I just returned from a week-long Workcamp in McDowell County, West Virginia with students from Sidwell Friends School and Upshur Helping Hands from Buckhannon, WV. These trips are always energizing, exhausting, hopeful and discouraging. The kids are great and give a sense of hope for the future. We do great work, but there are always the questions of "In what ways are we breaking the cycle?" and "How do we translate the experiences of service in other communities to making a difference in our own backyard?" In this part of WV (coal country) there are few jobs available with little on the horizon; there is limited access to the basics - food, healthcare, education - so the opportunities to get out are limited. Drug addiction is a huge problem - perhaps an even bigger problem than anything else. But there is also a beauty and a sense of belonging to the place that keeps people there and draws others there such as ourselves. In addition, because it is coal country and we rely on coal to keep energy affordable, we are connected. This area bears the consequences of our thirst for energy. So in the mix of all this, we do have opportunities to explore individual and societal patterns and perhaps explore how we can learn things in a place like McDowell County that can be of benefit to that county as well as in our own backyard. What I find is that that it is rarely in the actual service that these opportunities emerge, but in the conversations as we spend time together.
This past week, the theme of Kindness and Appreciation emerged. Here's how it came about:
We were helping a woman by nailing down her porch stairs. After we finished and returned to our own project next door (building a porch roof), one of the kids who helped asked if we were thanked for our work. I stated that yes, we were, but also questioned "should that matter?" Rather than do something so that we are thanked, is it not ok to be thankful for the opportunity to be of service? It was an "off-the-cuff" response, but seemed to resonate with both the student and with me. For many, making sure to thank people is a golden rule - so much so that at times, the thanks seem more driven by obligation than appreciation. I do believe that it is best when there is time taken to express appreciation, but when it is not forthcoming, does that mean we don't help the person? Does that mean they don't appreciate our efforts? To truly be of service, it is without expectation. In fact, the most spiritually important service we can provide might be the kind of service that is not appreciated or even noticed.
The thing is, because we are human, it is not so easy to put our egos aside. This can leave an empty feeling if we keep the need for appreciation externally-focused. What we can do is practice a deep sense of appreciation for the opportunity to be of service and, in our act of service, we are serving not just another person but also a higher purpose - God, community, environment - take your pick. If nothing else, the world is a better place. By bringing appreciation to these interactions, we bring greater appreciation to the world.
This is where kindness fits in. The more we can practice little acts of kindness - anything from holding a door open for someone, stopping to pet a dog, picking up a piece of litter - I have found that the heart softens and the ego-need lessens.
It really is simply said: if we want more appreciation in the world, we can practice greater appreciation. If we want more kindness in the world, we have to practice more kindness.
These multi-day Workcamps - whether they are in DC, West Virginia, South Dakota, New Orleans, or Kenya - are opportunities to practice this through service, building community, worship sharing/reflection and simply becoming more conscious. It is when we can use these "away" experiences to enhance our proficiency as well as energize our spirit in our daily lives, that I believe we are truly on the way to global transformation towards greater peace.