Direct service is the continuation of politics by other means. It is also a pathway to personal wisdom and spiritual growth. It’s also fun, when it’s not soul-crushingly bleak!
I came to this work as a middle-class white guy with good intentions and a standard liberal view that “people deserve help.” What I’ve discovered is a new understanding of poverty and how people react to it. I’ve seen people struggling with trouble of all kinds: physical illness, mental illness, drug addiction, lack of income, time spent in jail, a chronic inability to make relationships, having all their stuff stolen.
I used to think that homeless people were somehow diminished in their humanity, but I’ve learned better. We of the middle class are trained to think of the poor as somehow less than us, in need of our moral and material superiority to lift them up. This is not true. Every person you meet is as passionate about their own life as you are about yours, no matter what challenges they face, what bad decisions they have made, or how futile their current situation seems to be.
Knowing this, I now believe that individual acts of caring and kindness are valuable, even while the systems that cause poverty remain intact. We must, of course, engage in political activity to change those oppressive systems, but if politics is not grounded in personal connections it risks becoming an academic exercise, or missing the point. I did not know any poor people, and now I do. That is the value of direct service, and that is what qualifies me to speak, however tentatively, about the kind of changes we need to see in our society.
Serving people is fun, too! When you give a hungry person a meal, you have done something that MATTERS, right here and right now. They are happy and you are happy. You have made a connection. There is something healing in that moment, for both people. That moment of healing is, in and of itself, worthwhile, and it has repercussions in the larger world that we cannot know.