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Community Service and Service-Learning: Charity, Justice, or Both?

Ann Mellow
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Last Updated: Nov 5, 2019, 15:38 PM
Date Posted: Mar 15, 2012, 09:14 AM
Episcopal schools’ long-standing commitment to community service has grown and evolved in recent years. Formerly disparate collections of community service activities have been increasingly transformed into well-articulated service programs that emphasize hands-on service-learning. Regardless of where a school locates itself across this continuum or the ages of children involved, however, Episcopal schools face similar challenges as they develop and sustain meaningful service programs in a contemporary context.

This article offers three complementary lenses that can help schools of all varieties to understand better and develop the why, what, and how of evolving community service programs: a theology of service; the ethic of charity and the ethic of justice; and current K-12 standards for service-learning.

A Theology of Service

Community service is now a well-established part of both public and independent school programs, and a high level of volunteerism is a defining feature of current high school and college students. Given these facts, what makes community service in Episcopal schools distinctive?

The English word “charity” is derived from caritas, the Latin equivalent of the Greek agape. Agape can be found in the simple statement “God is love,” in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, and in Jesus’ invocation to “love one another as I have loved you.” Agape and caritas embody Christ’s’ call to all humanity to become instruments of love, peace, healing, and reconciliation; to feed the hungry, free the oppressed, and tend to the afflicted. Christ calls us to engage in simple acts of human kindness and transformational acts that reconcile the world to God’s purpose.

Service, stewardship, and servant leadership in Episcopal schools, then, go well beyond a secular civic imperative to cultivate good citizens or promote the common good. They are moral imperatives grounded in the baptismal covenant and core expressions of Episcopal schools’ Christian foundation.

An ethic of care is also found in virtually every faith tradition, including the Abrahamic traditions. The diversity of religious mandates to serve God through one’s fellow human being strengthens the theological underpinnings of community service programs in Episcopal schools and supports the spiritual growth of all students.

The theological dimensions of service can powerfully define and communicate a “why” of community service that transcends the secular. This is particularly important when service programs take on issues of equity and justice which, in a purely secular setting, quickly become viewed as primarily if not solely political in nature.

Charity v. Justice

The terms “ethic of charity” and “ethic of justice” can be found in Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, and other faith-based social service literature and in the secular field of service-learning. Sometimes described as the “two feet” of service, the distinction between charity and justice can be enormously helpful when assessing and developing community service programs or activities.

The “ethic of charity” describes direct service for immediate relief, such as aid in the aftermath of natural disaster or civil crisis, food drives, or providing supplies such as books, toys, medicine, or clothing. Acts of charity can also be described as an “ethic of response.” They ease suffering, offer comfort, and prevent further harm. They show immediate results and are rarely controversial and often highly satisfying. Activities in this category are important ways for young people to serve others and make a tangible difference, and they have historically dominated community service programs in schools.

The “ethic of justice” seeks a permanent solution to a human need. “Justice” focuses on transformational changes to social structures so as to reduce or remove the need for charity. The “ethic of justice” is less about sharing resources than about empowerment. It is an ethic of restoration—of righting the world in fundamental ways. Examples include micro-loan programs, sustainable agriculture or commerce, permanent improvements to working conditions, changes in legal and other social systems, or tangible improvements to health and education. Because the “ethic of justice” proposes changes to existing ways of doing and being, its work can be controversial and is often seen as political.

Episcopal schools have increasingly expanded community service programs to include an “ethic of justice,” not as political acts but as acts of restoration and reconciliation grounded in Christian action. The Episcopal Church’s commitment to social justice issues has reinforced this work, and Episcopal schools’ efforts to be increasingly diverse and inclusive communities have underscored the need for increased equity if everyone is to be welcome at the community table. 

Putting ideas into action, however, is not always easy, and schools rightly debate how to implement transformational service across the age span. God’s Mission in The World: An Ecumenical Christian Study Guide on Global Poverty and the Millennium Development Goals was developed by the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2006. Although it was designed to be used by parishes, it suggests four ways that people all ages can promote an ethic of justice:

  • Solidarity and prayer: In schools, this can include chapel services committed to a particular issue, wearing a wristband or other visible sign of solidarity, moments of silence, and taking time to honor and recognize an issue.
  • Education: We sometimes forget that in-depth learning about the complexities of a particular issue and hearing from those directly affected constitute action in service of change.
  • Partnerships and community organizing: This includes working with other organizations and communities for improvement or becoming an ally with those affected, such as partnering with Episcopal Relief and Development or supporting organizations such as Heifer International, Kiva, or others who are providing long-term, transformational aid.
  • Advocacy: Speaking up with and on behalf of others, such as letter writing and legislative advocacy.
Most Episcopal schools already engage in one or all of the four categories above, and there are enriching opportunities to integrate chapel, the curriculum, student activities, and community service to address a particular issue or topic. Schools that are wondering how to engage students in social justice issues can use these four components to craft curricula and programs.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, in our earnestness to serve others we must guard against inadvertently reinforcing students’ stereotypes about class, race, or culture. The notion that people know what they need and can think for themselves is at the heart of The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The author and thinker Parker Palmer reminds us that all human societies have scarcity and abundance, be it physical, economic, spiritual, or cultural. Ultimately, service is not something we do to or for an “other,” but something we do in full and equal partnership with others. Episcopal schools have an important opportunity to help students see their fellow human beings as neighbors on a shared planet who share an equal portion of God’s love rather than objects of pity, shame, or guilt.

Charity and justice are both necessary, and the distinction between the two can clarify the kind of service in which schools are or would like to engage. Because working for justice is more challenging than acts of charity alone, it is important to clarify the school’s philosophy of service and articulate it to faculty, students, and parents. This can be helpful to parish day schools and diocesan schools whose church counterparts may not be aware of the school’s service programs and with whom there may be untapped opportunities for partnership and collaboration.

Developmental Appropriateness and Service-Learning Theory

Finally, schools are ever mindful of the developmental appropriateness and educational value of what they ask their students to do, learn, or explore. It is challenging to craft developmentally appropriate service programs. Parents, administrators, or faculty members may want students to do too much too fast or resist students engaging in difficult topics and experiences.

The service-learning model has become the standard for school-based community service programming. In July 2008, the National Youth Leadership Conference adopted K-12 Service-Learning Standards. Quality programs address an underlying social issue or need, have an educational component, and are interesting, engaging, and personally relevant. Ideally students are involved in designing, implementing, and evaluating the experience, and have opportunities for leadership. Finally, service activities take place in partnership with other organizations or communities across several weeks or months.

To be successful, service-learning needs the buy-in of the teaching faculty, including agreement about the time, content, scope, and duration of given projects. Schools can use the standards as a jumping off point for faculty discussions or when developing or assessing service programs.

Each of the frameworks discussed here can help Episcopal schools to shape meaningful service experiences with intentionality and care. Ultimately, each school needs to balance the scriptural call to service, the ethics of charity and justice, and the school’s age span, educational style, and mission.

Like the Episcopal Church, most Episcopal schools are historical products of privilege and plenty, and many people continue to view Episcopal schools as bastions of elitism that exist to serve the affluent. In fact, Episcopal schools educate all—the rich, the middle class, and the poor. They can take pride in their educational excellence, the spiritual centeredness of their school communities, and the variety of children and families served. They are uniquely positioned to use these substantial gifts with wisdom and courage and, in the words of Episcopal Relief & Development, to “heal a hurting world.”

Ann Mellow is associate director of NAES.