By Brittani Lamb

One thing that struck me in the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself is the author’s statement that “one of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make – by far – is applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention” (p. 101). It made me think – of all the service projects and volunteer opportunities I participated in through my church growing up, how many were something other than relief? Of course, there is definitely a time and place for relief. But how many meals do we need to serve at a soup kitchen before we do something more about hunger in our community?

One of the most memorable service projects I participated in was cleaning up the water-filled ditches of New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish in 2009.  The waterways were still filled with debris from Hurricane Katrina four years earlier. It was amazing because we were able to make so much visible progress and the residents of the neighborhood were very appreciative. Many came out of their homes to thank us and tell their stories. But looking back, I have to wonder – could we have done something else that would’ve been more helpful? What we did was essentially relief. I feel fairly confident that what we did didn’t hurt anyone, per se, but was cleaning out the ditch what they needed from us? How could we have involved the people of the neighborhood more? We did do some research about New Orleans beforehand and heard several people’s stories about their experience with Katrina. However, as far as I know, we didn’t ask people what their needs were or include them in our service.  

I think service learning is a great way to make sure we aren’t applying relief when rehabilitation or development would be more appropriate. The Service and Learning leadership team based out of Trinity Lutheran College has integrated a four step learning process with service learning. This process of Preparation-Action-Reflection-Celebration really resonates with me. Laying some groundwork before an experience and doing some intentional processing afterward make for an amazing growth experience. Furthermore, meaningful preparation that goes beyond planning logistics makes a big difference in the attitudes toward a service opportunity. I like the idea of creating goals and assessing strengths, both within the group who is doing the service and the group or individual they plan to work with. That makes the action of service that much more meaningful and enables participants to be intentional about their involvement and find meaning in tasks that can seem meaningless, like pulling garbage out of a pond. I think the “seeking God’s presence” component of the action step of service learning is one of the best parts. If we are really supposed to be doing God’s work with our hands, we should think about how we are doing that! Beyond the service, the reflection and celebration steps of service learning really enhance the experience. Processing the service through the lens of scripture and the goals that were set ahead of time can be a deeply meaningful way to think about how the experience will shape your future actions and beliefs. Finally, celebrating and sharing the experience with partners and the congregation is another step of processing and learning. The more people who hear about the service as a learning experience, the more people start to understand the bigger picture and what service and helping should be, which is not always relief!

Brittani Lamb is an intern for ELCA World Hunger.