I once heard a story about service from a Focolarino, a member of the Focolare, a Catholic movement dedicated to Love of Neighbor. One day, the Focolarino was helping a poor man pick apples that he could sell to support his family. After he drove the man home, the Focolarino was surprised to find the poor man offering him some of the apples. At first he refused: How could he accept these apples that this man needed to support his family? However, the Focolarino soon realized that the man was trying to return the favors done for him by the Focolarino in the only way he could. Now he thought, How could I deprive him of this experience that I find sacred? And so, the Focolarino accepted the apples and drove away.
During the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Freshman Alternative Spring Break trip to the Biloxi, Miss., area last week, my group and I had many “apples” moments, as we called them. We were helping local residents recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but we were always surprised to see the way that the people we were serving and their neighbors always rushed to serve us in return. This reciprocity fostered a strong sense of mutual dignity that was always present during our stay. These relationships, built on the act of serving and loving others, inspired us to bring our service experience back to Harvard and taught us an invaluable lesson about the potential of Service to shape communities.
During the week, our team of freshmen renovated two shotgun houses in Gulfport. A woman named Mary, who has lived on the land for about 60 years, owns the houses. She currently lives in the house next door and is planning on renting both shotgun houses to some of the people still living in trailers after their homes were destroyed by Katrina. Through terrible weather and with limited supplies, we stripped the old paint off the walls, sanded, primed, and repainted the exteriors of the houses.
I had the great privilege of spending some time with Mary on a trip to Lowe’s for more supplies. Driving through the town of Gulfport, Mary told my trip-mate Danny and me some inspiring tales of perseverance living through Hurricane Camille in the ’60s and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
I never saw Mary happier as when she and I were filling up a jug of water to serve all of the students working on the house. What made her smile most during the day wasn’t the idea that she was that much closer to renting her buildings for a profit. It was the ability to support us by giving us cold water. There is a certain value to that feeling of helping another human being, the act of Love of Neighbor. It is an act that all can participate in, even those who need to be served sometimes.
These “apples” moments kept occurring. One afternoon, one of Mary’s neighbors pulled up in a pickup truck and brought us sweet tea. Another day, a woman one of our trip-mates had helped during the immediate aftermath of Katrina invited us over to her house when our workday was rained out. From these and other instances, we could see the value of service to this community in repair. We could see it in the heartfelt “thank yous” of strangers passing us on the street. We saw it when a woman waiting behind us in line at a fast-food restaurant broke into tears of joy and told us that we reminded her of a group of students who helped rebuild her house. It seemed as though the massive community of volunteers that came down after Katrina had left a culture of service imprinted onto the gulf coast. Indeed, HandsOn Gulf Coast, the organization we were working with, is now developing a platform for locally based volunteerism in the Biloxi area.
Before this trip, we had heard stories of people striving together to “Repair the Broken” in Mississippi and Louisiana. We had heard stories of floodwaters being replaced by floods of volunteers, a river of compassion and commitment. We had heard stories of people coming from places all over the country to help their fellow people, to participate in that sacred act of Service.
During our trip, we saw this community firsthand. Scratch that: We lived it. We lived it in the days we woke up at 5:45 to make breakfast for our fellow volunteers, to wash the dishes, mop the floors, and then do it all over again. We lived it the day we spent at a Humane Society facility, helping with maintenance and caring for animals displaced by Katrina. This spirit of service seemed to infiltrate all of our interactions, at the worksite, at the church we were staying in, even in the van traveling in between.
This spirit of Love of Neighbor that engulfed this community, servants and served alike, is what we will bring back to Harvard. Through this trip, we have grown as students, leaders, and people. Even though we could only do so much during our week there, we will hold onto the memory of a community that is based on service, not self-interest. Service is the cornerstone of the community that rose up after Katrina blew its house down. This communal transformation is just as visible as the physical restorations made by volunteers. You can see it in relationships and actions formed there. Maybe in this time of economic turmoil, Service has that unique ability to repair. Maybe this once-forgotten region, in which we worked and lived for that great week, will be a beacon of a better future: a vision of a service community that can take shape here in Cambridge, too.