Originally Published March, 2017.
It only took me a couple days in Bangkok to realize I’d been thinking about service the wrong way. Here for four weeks, I couldn’t wait to learn more about the lives of refugees and immigrants. Issues of migration have only just managed to make it on to my radar in the past couple of years because of the media, but I knew there had to be more, that I still had so much to learn. I just didn’t expect for the lesson to take the form of a hard realization as I’ve rethought what it means to serve.
For me, it’s easy to imagine giving to the little boy from Syria whose photo was captured while he sat in an ambulance, displaced from safety and security. It’s easy to imagine giving to the brother and sister I met in IDC this week who extended smiles and bits of their lives across the gap between us. I found it harder to feel generous when I visited a girl who had no interest in talking with me, whose eyes lit up when another woman walked up and who didn’t look twice when I waved goodbye and walked away. I guess you could say it was a humbling experience.
I had met her a week before, eager to make connections during my first visit to Immigration Detention Center (IDC), and I felt a surge of relief when we made eye contact and could start a conversation, a difficult task considering that everyone around us was shouting to be heard themselves. It was my first visit, and I wanted to make an impact on someone’s life. I quickly realized it wasn’t that simple. Just a gap of a couple feet separates visitors from detainees, I found it hard to reach across. Eventually, the young woman seemed to lose interest in my stilted attempts at conversation. I found myself trying, wanting, to connect with her, so I told her I would write a letter. When she asked me to visit her, I promised without hesitation.
The next week, I anticipated the visit, knowing that she might still not want to connect with me. Secretly, I hoped she would be excited that I’d come to visit. I found her at the fence again and once more tried to figure out a way to connect with someone whose life experience so vastly contrasted my own, but again, the young woman looked too tired or disinterested to try talking with me. That’s when the other woman walked up behind me, her presence transforming the young woman’s features into excitement. I slid away to make room for the woman, eventually walking away altogether.
I finished my visit by talking with a brother and sister whose openness made me want to hear more about them and their story. Yet even as we talked, I realized how much more easily I could give my time and attention to them than to the girl who looked like she wanted nothing to do with me. That visit has been making me wonder how often I serve just because it’s easy.
In my own faith, I know I’m called to serve the “widows and the children,” which is good because I have no problem wanting to care for the little kids of the world or reach out to women whom I can see as my sisters. I have a harder time showing care when I walk down the streets of the red light district and see men at bars that sell sex or when I try to reach out to someone who doesn’t appreciate it. I’m convinced it’s not bad to give out of sympathy, like the kind that emerges after seeing a photo of a Syrian refugee boy. But how can we take it a step further and serve even when the people we’re called to care for don’t tug at our heartstrings?
My interaction with that young woman made me wonder how to keep the momentum of giving up during those times, but it also offered me one more lesson about that weighty word of service. I know for myself, when I thought of working with refugees, I envisioned wading through the waters of Greece to help them off boats or something as equally immediate. Sometimes, service looks like that, it’s true. I can’t help but feel a bit convicted that when I walked into the IDC, I hoped to make a difference, not necessarily for others but so I could feel fulfilled, yet forgetting how to serve from a deeper place than myself. But after meeting that young woman, I’ve remembered that for whatever labels we slap on others, people are still people, beauty and flaws alike. Maybe the beauty of caring doesn’t only lie in the ability to share resources with others or make a natural connection. Maybe service also calls us to care for people even when we’re unsure if our presence makes a difference or when we find ourselves interacting with people who don’t exactly make love flow freely. It’s especially in those times that we can come face to face with our motivations and ask, are we doing this for ourselves or are we truly giving of ourselves to others?