I think it is time to admit it: I'm nearly a professional volunteer. I haven't always been. For a long time I managed my impulse toward service in a way that allowed me to keep my normal life pragmatically rolling along steady, even occasionally service-oriented. I used free evenings and weekends to give back to my community in one way or the other. Many of us do this, many of us need to do this. It feels good. But as the new millennium rolled in, so did my first experience of combining travel with volunteering, and it has been a slippery slope toward professionalism ever since. Asia led to Africa which led to Latin America; one month led to six to twelve.
Of course, I'm not the only one for whom travel has become synonymous with service and volunteerism. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) shows that the market demand for responsible tourism is strong, with two-thirds of consumers worldwide preferring to buy products and services from companies that "give back to society." CREST identifies responsible travel as "travel that minimizes negative impacts, brings economic benefits to host communities and preserves the cultural and natural resources of the destinations." Among the many sectors of tourism that fit into this description, there is a rapidly growing demand for experiential tourism and voluntourism or traveler philanthropy. This seems evidence of a drive for a deeper meaning and sense of fulfillment -- the heart of service -- that even reaches into what, for many, is their leisure time.
Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles, speaks of service as "a common call to delight in one another." In an interview I recently heard, he says the delight comes from entering into full kinship with one another, and shares a story of working with one of his "homies," concluding: "maybe I return him to himself but there is no doubt he returns me to myself." I think about all the iterations of a "call" that have surged through me: to make the world a better place, make a difference, work for justice, help those less fortunate than myself. But I suspect Father Boyle has nailed it on the head: has it always been, fundamentally, a call to return to myself? This process of returning home, so to speak, through the experience of mutuality, requires bridging the differences between us, as Father Boyle points out, including (at least acknowledging) the distance inherent in service -- that of service provider and recipient.
I suppose the bridge can be as unique and varied as those who are attempting to cross it, even built on the footings of our differences. During my six months of living with a community in northern Nigeria, it was perhaps my otherness, being an outsider, that made it acceptable for me to behave differently and, therefore, allowed them to be seen differently -- particularly because I wasn't held to the same standards of behavior in regards to gender and status. Our security guard, Nehemiah, was a proud man, with a good grasp of English, but always gave the impression that his lot in life left him feeling cheated and denied of respect. One day he said to me, "I've been making calculations about you. You are a lesson in sociology for this community and we are learning so much from you. I notice that you are kind to every person, even if they are dirty and no matter their age or position. You are maternal, going to the market and bringing back food to share. You are kind to the lower staff."
To my mind, what Nehemiah spoke of were very simple, non-extraordinary acts of decency and thoughtfulness. Obviously for him, however, the effort to see another as a unique but equal human being was, in some way, a revolutionary act. My hope is that the beauty of their humanity was somehow reflected back to them in our simple exchanges. But what I was never able to articulate to Nehemiah was the effect these exchanges had on me. I don't think I even realized it until the weeks leading up to my departure, only gradually becoming aware of the sense of fitting into my own skin for the first time, like slipping on a glove that is perfectly sized for the hand. Clothed in the plainness of kindness and free from the pressure to accessorize with success or achievement -- at least that is how I felt seen from their eyes -- I did, indeed, return home to myself, even on that foreign soil.
Father Boyle ended his interview with this poem from the Persian poet Hafiz -- it seems worth repeating a thousand times over:
With That Moon Language
Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, "Love me."
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect. Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?