Is Service Always A Good Thing?

Once upon a time, on an island far, far away there lived a monkey. One day there were torrential rains that never seemed to end and the island began to flood. The rain and the waters kept coming and coming until one day, the monkey was left with only a little bit of land and one tree. As he was sitting up in his tree, he noticed another animal in the water. It was moving back and forth. The monkey was so worried about the little animal and wanted to rescue it. So, the monkey risked its own life to go out to the end of the branch and snatch the animal out of the water to prevent it from drowning. He put the animal on the ground to dry out under the sun and get warm. The animal flopped around and the monkey thought he looked so happy and was jumping around in excitement. Then, the animal was lying perfectly still and the monkey thought it looked so peaceful. Of course, the animal was a fish…..

The moral of the story… I can have good intentions and want to help but sometimes I just make things worse because I do not really understand the people who I am trying to help.

In church several weeks ago a young man named Paul who had spent a year volunteering as an English teacher in China talked to the congregation about his experience. He told the story above as part of explaining how he sometimes felt about  the value of his service teaching English. Was  learning English going to be a positive thing for his students or might he be hurting them in some way by teaching them a foreign language and the cultural values that accompanied that language? 

I have been on many service trips and been part of many service projects and have often thought about the value of that service in much the same way. What good does it do to parachute into a community and dispense our help and expertise? What good is service when we are not building long-term relationships, not bothering to understand the culture of the place we have come to, not taking time to learn their ways and their language and learn from them? 

All too often in the past ‘missionaries’ would go into areas to serve people, to save them, and instead would end up eradicating language and culture and social systems replacing them with foreign models that just didn’t work and ended up causing death and destruction and conflict. 

Community service is becoming a requirement in many high schools and universities. Some religious denominations require it of their young people. But is service always a good thing? Some institutions now use the term ‘service learning’. Is that any better?

According to the paper Why Service Learning Is Bad community service and service learning can divert the resources of service agencies away from where they are needed most, can foster incorrect and  inadequate conceptions of need and service and can do real harm to communities. The paper makes it clear that how and why service is done can make a big difference. Community service and service learning are ideas that need plenty of thoughtful planning and consideration before an individual or organization or educational institution undertakes them.  

Another post that might be of interest is………

Are You Speaking English?

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Filed under Culture, Education, Reflections, Religion, Travel

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