Emory Report
April 7, 2008
Volume 60, Number 26


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April 7, 2008
Serving to learn

By Melody Porter

When I began my Master of Divinity degree at Candler in 1998, I had just returned from eight months of full-time volunteer work in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of my professors that first semester was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and listening to his voice each week took me back to the streets, pews and communities that had become so familiar during my stay in South Africa. Although he spoke on subjects ranging from eschatology to organizing, what I found most resonant with my experience with the people of Johannesburg was his grounding in ubuntu theology.

As he describes in “The Words of Desmond Tutu,” “Africans believe in something that is difficult to render in English. We call it ubuntu, botho. It means the essence of being human. It speaks about humaneness, gentleness, hospitality, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable. It embraces compassion and toughness. It recognizes that my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” Or, as he summed it up frequently in class, “people are people through other people.”

Sitting in those classes, I would never have guessed that 10 years later, I’d be back at Emory, seeing ubuntu theology in practice every day. But as the director of Volunteer Emory, I get to watch the amazing opening-up that happens with students when they put themselves out on behalf of others, and become more human — and more themselves — in the process.

When students volunteer, their eyes are opened to new and fun ways to be in the world. Academically pressured students get outside of their heads and see the world as centered on something besides the next exam. Running with a third-grader or socializing an abused dog gives them space to experience something new, and the energy to take it all in. They meet others who share their passions. A Volunteer Emory staff member described the new volunteers who join a trip: their faces brighten and they say “I had no idea! This is really awesome!”

As volunteers’ vision broadens, their minds are opened wider. Issues now have faces, so educational inequality, inadequate health care and environmental degradation are no longer just topics in a political science class. They’re reality. While volunteering, students learn about and contribute to what nonprofits and creative groups of hard-working people are doing to address those challenges.

They expand their skill base, too. Where else do students practice the fine arts of cold-calling for donations, advocating for women’s rights, differentiating privet from azaleas and hanging drywall, all in the course of a month? Service makes students better prepared for work, strengthens their networks, and sometimes even helps them find their calling.

They find something else, too. As their vision is bigger and their minds are challenged, their hearts enlarge. After returning from a week of hurricane relief in New Orleans, a student told me about how the experience opened him up to the people around him. “When you learn everyone’s name and really get to know them. . . you can always find something you appreciate, and it makes you a better person to know that.” Students get more in touch with themselves, and in some ways, grow into their own skin.

Another student shared how service is no longer just an activity for her. “Volunteer Emory has helped me realize that serving isn’t just something I do; it feels like who I am.”

It connects you to yourself and to others, and may even have broad-ranging impacts. A volunteer talks about the simplicity of connecting in human relationships, saying, “With each second we put in service, we are pushing the world a step closer to harmony and peace.”

As we sit across the table from the 15-year-old struggling with fractions, pull weeds from a garden that nourishes a community, or dish up coleslaw for women and children who are getting back on their feet, we end up doing more than tutoring, gardening and serving. We fall in love. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Because when you love people, they’re no longer just an issue. They’re no longer “homelessness,” or “immigration,” or “failing schools.” They’re sisters and brothers. They’re family. And like family, they help to make us who we are. People are people through other people.