“…..and service is its prayer.”
A couple days out of the week I spend volunteering at an organization in San Diego that works primarily with refugees, asylees, and immigrants. Of my various stints as a non-profit organization volunteer, this one is probably the most formalized. Today, for example, I put on dress pants and a nice sweater in order to spend many hours filing cases. Then I took out many of those same cases in order to add new notices from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, in a masterfully grotesque data entry system. There were also many phone calls, including people trying to extract their parents from Syria and annoyed and pushy clients trying to find a closer appointment date. This is because, lovely ad campaigns notwithstanding, social justice isn’t all about glamorous trips to impoverished villages to build houses. In fact, a goodly portion is exhausting, frustrating, and painstaking.
This is in addition to the fact that, as a recent discussion over PeaceCorps and Teach for America reminded me, we continuously struggle over our intentions in social justice and social services work, the impact of our actions, and the mindset behind them. I seem to recall a few UU discussions in particular about privilege and accountability, especially at our last General Assembly. Is there a right way to engage in social justice work? It often seems like whatever road we take will necessarily be plagued with difficulties, whether it be the frustrations of dealing with USICS bureaucracy or the dubious navigating through cross-cultural interactions. And with these difficulties in mind, I wonder sometimes why I continue to pursue things labeled “social action” or “social justice” – is it really creating changes important and meaningful to me? When I talk to my church’s high school group about immigration policy and they tell me undocumented adults should be deported, lest the country become overpopulated – is it worthwhile and constructive?
Of course, the answer is yes, or else this blog post wouldn’t be worth reading. But I promise to continue without telling a story about starfish dying on the beach.
If I think of social action as service, and service as prayer, two things become apparent. One is that service to others requires a large dose of humility. This is because prayer is inherently humble – you don’t have to go down on your knees to feel the humility of openly asking, groping about for some piece of hope. It is the humility of trusting to the listening universe to hear your requests seriously, and asking for those things we know are improbable, impossible even, but ever so wished for. This leads to my second thought, that in that humility is the essence of asking, the heart of feeling a deep need for something, and begging the world to answer back. For example, when I was a kid, I prayed at night for many things: for my spelling quizzes to go well, for Al Gore to become president, and for my parents to adopt another cat. (I didn’t have a deep need for another cat, but I thought I did.) And listening to Joys and Concerns at my church, I know others are asking for many things as well. The recovery of a sick relative, a loving marriage for a son, or the remembrance of someone who has passed away. Prayer means requesting that which we need, as humbly and as earnestly as possible.
So service as prayer indicates that working in social services, or social justice, should include that same humility, and the awareness that we do this work out of need, and out of some great asking. When I volunteer in the immigration office, I am asking for a great deal – the fulfillment of personal connection with a client, the satisfaction and pride of improving, in some tiny way, the life of another. And I am asking for the betterment of my community, for more equality and more compassion, not just because of some altruistic wish for humanity, but for my own, personal need to see that happen and feel its benefits in my own life.
It is often quoted (and attributed to many), that “Justice is love in action.” Well, we UUs love love. We love talking about love, we love writing about it, and we love holding it up as the rallying point of a much-debated, sometimes confusing faith. In accordance with our faith, we want more love in the world. In fact, we pray for it. The work of social justice then, is not only the manifestation of humble asking, but the answer to our prayers. In a convoluted formula, we have asked for love, and in order to get it, we must create more compassionate justice. This is what we ask for in engaging in the work of social action, this is the personal need being filled – for love for others, yes, but also for ourselves. For in our most personal and intimate prayers, we ask for more love in our own lives.
So, then, I understand how service, despite its many and complex trials, is worthwhile. Because it is this physical embodiment of asking for what we need most, a method of praying while walking, that can most intuitively satisfy our thirst.