By Michael Debaets
If my Servant Year has had a theme, it's been the theme of charity.
In itself, signing up for Servant Year Philadelphia is a charitable action -- it's donating a year of time and energy to the program. And, during the following months, as I worked at Covenant House PA, lived at House of Prayer, and completed the requirements of the Servant Year program, when my motivation would sometimes fail, I got the strength to continue by recalling and recommitting to my initial charitable decision.
By continually renewing that original charitable commitment, I have learned that the best way to put charity into action is to commit to doing a little bit over a long period of time.
At the beginning of the year, I was trying to do too much. I would be looking for extra charitable things that I could do for other people. I wanted to see that I had made a positive impact.
Covenant House seemed, at first, like the perfect place to do "extra charitable things," because there were so many opportunities for "going the extra mile." I wanted to really help these young men, to go above and beyond.
But whenever I got caught up in "doing extra charity" for any one of the residents in particular, I lost track of the big picture, my professional responsibilities, the reason why I was there. And the reason why I was there was to administer the charity of Covenant House. There's no charity called Michael DeBaets House. These men didn't come to Covenant House PA to get my help. They came to get Covenant House's help.
And Covenant House's help is nothing to scoff at. Covenant House -- the nation-wide organization -- is the largest provider of housing to homeless teens in the United States, and perhaps in the world.
When I began to realize that Covenant House was so good, I became free from a feeling of over-obligation to the residents. These days, whenever I start to wish I could do something extra to help them, I remind myself that I have already done a lot of good for them by working for the organization that shelters them. And I recommit to the structure of Covenant House, which keeps me from falling into sympathy too easily.
I don't have to do extra charity. I am already doing charity.
Covenant House was a great place to learn this, but I have also learned this by living with my housemates and by living within the structure of Servant Year. The explicit agreements that we make -- those are our primary obligations. And we keep those primary obligations, and they sustain our community.
For instance, my house wrote in our house rule that we meet every Wednesday to share dinner, and we meet every Sunday to plan the week. Rules like that are our long-term plan for house happiness. It's a little bit of charity spread out over a year. And that's our obligation to each other.
I've learned that, when I have these structures in place, I can relax a bit. I can trust.
And maybe that's God's little gift of charity to me.
Michael serves as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.
By Catherine Shaw
I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on that crucial question: who am I? I haven’t yet managed to answer it to my satisfaction, nor do I think I ever will, but, like most people, I’ve formed a basic sense of self from my likes and dislikes, the things I’m good at and those I’m not, my background, blah-de-blah-de-blah. (I know I’m not saying anything new or revolutionary here.) Of course, life always gets interesting when something in my life forces me to redefine the way I think of myself. College was responsible for several identity crises (maybe that’s why it’s so expensive…), many of which involved realizing I really wasn’t as good at something as I thought I was.
Oddly enough, it’s much easier for me admit and adjust to being worse at something than I thought I was than it is for me to integrate something new into my idea of myself. At least, I find it odd, since why wouldn’t I find it easy to claim a new skill or ability as something at which I excel?
If you’re wondering why you’re drowning in this morass of self-examination, you should blame Servant Year. More specifically, you should blame Servant Year’s mid-year retreat. Most specifically, you should blame the Clifton StrengthsFinder test we took prior to the retreat and which we discussed at retreat. (Yes, I had fun with that little progression. Probably more than I should have.)
Donald Clifton, a psychologist, created the StrengthsFinder test after many, many years of research. He identified thirty-four “themes of talent” and the test determines which of these are your top five strengths. Mine were:
5. Developer (my first reaction to this one: what does this even mean?)
While I generally take this kind of thing with a grain of salt, I was still pretty surprised to find empathy and developer made it on the list. Not that I think I’m unempathetic, exactly, but I’ve never considered myself particularly skilled at figuring out other people’s emotions without some sort of verbalization on their part. I definitely don’t “hear the unvoiced questions…anticipate the need…find the right words and right tone [where others grapple for words]” (Rath, 97). I’m good at listening, but I always struggle to find the right words to say. Usually all I’ve got is something along the lines of “I hear you, and I understand where you’re coming from. I’m here.” Yes, there is a degree of empathy there, but I don’t think I’ll ever number it among my greatest strengths.
According to the StrengthsFinder book we received to help us interpret our results, being a “developer” means that I “see potential in others. Very often, in fact, this is all [I] see…when [I] interact with others, [my] goal is to help them experience success. [I] look for ways to challenge them. [I] devise interesting experiences that can stretch them and help them grow. All the while [I am] on the lookout for the signs of growth…[that] are [my] fuel. They bring [me] strength and satisfaction” (Rath, 89). Umm, no. Yes, I like helping people get things done or figure things out, but I don’t do that because of the potential I see in them or because I want to help them along their journey of self-discovery/self-actualization – I have never thought of it that way. I just do it because I like to. So I disagree pretty strongly with this particular theme’s presence in the list of my top five strengths.
My StrengthsFinder results spurred a lot of introspection (hence the beginning of this blog post). While I disagreed with some of my results, it made me examine my thoughts and actions more closely in certain areas to see if I had missed some indication of my abilities in those areas. A few months later, I still disagree with the empathy and developer strengths, so the StrengthsFinder test didn’t cause a life epiphany that helped me figure everything out, sigh. But I do think it was a valuable exercise in that it prompted me to question my sense of identity and to pay more attention to why conceive of myself the way I do.
So there you go. No mind-blowing revelation of life-changing proportions, but more of a small challenge to my equilibrium with positive consequences. Not bad.
Catherine Serves as Director of Christian Education at St. Luke's Church.