Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Nature of Service

            Yesterday, I brought 13 teenagers to Newark, and our destination was a half-block away from the Prudential Center arena. As we arrived, families were hustling into the center for a Disney on Ice event titled “Dare to Dream.” As vendors sold Disney accessories outside the arena, we turned onto Edison Place and pulled over alongside a group of adults and children standing in line.

           There were about 100 in the line, standing quietly alongside a chain-link fence as the teens, parent drivers and I hopped out of our cars and began hauling boxes of lunches over to them. We were delivering meals and clothes to these individuals along with Bridges Outreach, an organization that brings meals, clothing and toiletries to homeless and other low-income individuals in New York City, Newark and Irvington. For the next hour, my students handed out lunches and shirts, poured hot soup and hot chocolate, and talked with the men, women and children in line. Those in line were bundled up, with temperatures in the 30s, and they expressed gratitude for the food my students were giving them. Many returned to the back of the line for seconds, should we have any extra meals.

            It is now five days until a new president takes office, and there are vast disagreements throughout our nation as to the competency of this president-elect. While the people in line for lunches surely had their own opinions on this matter as well, their needs yesterday transcended politics. They are struggling to get by. As the teens from my high school interacted with these individuals, they were clearly moved by the degree of poverty they saw, just a few yards away from an arena filled with families watching Micky, Minnie and the Disney Princesses.

            “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. King, who would have been 88 years old today, would not care much about our president-elect’s income. He would, however, care a whole lot about that president’s desire to serve – not just the individuals who voted him into office, but the rest of the nation as well. King would want to know how dedicated that president is to justice, acceptance and equality, as well as to peace, compassion and understanding. The president would be of no use to King unless he was committed to a nation in which a diverse citizenry seeks progress together.

            King would be thrilled to know that my students gave of their Saturday morning to deliver lunches. He’d be interested to know how this trip impacted their societal views. He’d also encourage the students to keep reading about issues of inequality around the world. He might repeat the words he spoke in an Oberlin College commencement address more than 50 years ago: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals.”

            Some of my students will return tomorrow to the organization that took us to Newark, to help sort donations as part of the National Day of Service. They see work to be done, and they are persistent and dedicated in their service. I didn’t have to tell these teens to join our school’s community service club; they did it themselves. Two of them are even helping coordinate a conference on homelessness for teens in the region.

            When we had handed out the last lunch and shirt, we packed everything away, then huddled up and discussed all that we had done and seen on this January morning. As we got ready to leave, we realized that we had some extra bread, so a student ran up to a person we had served and gave her the bread. We took a quick picture outside the yellow Bridges Outreach truck, cleaned up any extra soup cups left behind, and hopped into our cars.

            “Mr. Hynes,” a student asked me, “when are we going on another Bridges run?” He wants to go back again, and soon. As I thought over this young man’s question, I recognized that there is one thing he definitely has in common with the president-elect. Both of them are officially engaged in service – one a community servant, and the other soon to be a public servant. If I can wish our country’s incoming chief executive one thing, it is that he commits to the public service, rather than the public relations. There’s just so much real work to be done.

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