Friday, September 05, 2008

What "Service" Means to Me

As I settled in to watch the first night of the Republican convention I saw hundreds waving signs with the word “Service,” and for a while I thought things had changed for the better. Here is what went through my head: Pundits had been saying that John McCain was going to try to appeal to the religious right. Many in the religious right, center, and left have over the past several years started to question the Republican Party’s commitment to fighting poverty and other social justice issues. In an attempt to connect his own military service, as well as the service of those who fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the community service that is necessary to fight poverty and injustice in the United States, McCain could package them both under the term “service” and be seen as a President who expects much from Americans, both overseas and at home. That is a message that would resound with people all over the political spectrum.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my thoughts were wishful thinking. The first part of the fantasy, the focus on military service, was rightfully used, though instead of having each speaker repeat the same story, I might have split McCain’s POW story into four or five parts, with each successive speaker telling a new chapter – it would have weaved a single narrative through all three nights of the convention and McCain could have ended it with himself as President of the United States. But the second part of the fantasy, “service” as community service, wasn’t even mentioned on the first night. On the second night I saw how wrong I was. Community service was not only absent from the Republican narrative, it was a punch line. Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer – to roaring applause and laughter. I sat there watching them both sneer at something that should be a virtue, and as I thought about the times that I had given of my time to help those in my community, I wondered how many who had done the same, religious or not, thought themselves the butt of the joke. I’m going to go out on the limb and say that is not the way to court religious voters.

“Service” to me has two meanings. My father served in Vietnam and returned to become a school teacher, fighting here in America for fair pay for teachers. My mother is a teacher for special needs children – she is one of the people that Sarah Palin praised early in her speech. My brother is a Sheriff’s Deputy, my sister is a nurse, and I was a high school teacher before deciding to stay home to raise my daughters. Service, to us, is service to country and community.

As a product of Jesuit education, I was taught that service was as vital a part of being a man or woman as knowing how to read or write. Two phrases, twin mottoes that adorn the walls of my memory, “For the Greater Glory of God” and “Men and Women for Others,” are so linked that I have a hard time believing the first can be achieved without the second. Community service was a part of each year’s curriculum, and we quickly learned why. Our eyes were opened to our world’s realities, not just the comforts of our friends and families. We could no longer hide behind that lie, that these impoverished “others” simply didn’t work as hard as our parents did.

I am not one of the many who have committed their lives to service. But I have, on many occasions, served food in inner city shelters, I have served the poorest of the poor in forgotten towns in Mexico, I have collected and distributed backpacks and school supplies to children, I have worked with special needs children and adults, and when the Mississippi River overflowed this year I hired a babysitter so I could go fill sandbags for my neighbors. My wife, the vice president of a company in Missouri, spends much of her time at our local Children’s Home, where staff and volunteers seek to make the lives of special needs children a little better. These people – and my mother – must have been confused at Sarah Palin’s speech. They were both praised and mocked.

Now none of this necessarily qualifies me, my wife, or those who work for the betterment of their community for President of the United States. But these people deserve better than the derision of those who seek to lead. They deserve respect, praise, and perhaps even the knowledge that their President has walked in their shoes for a year or three.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you actually watched the Republican convention?! You are a brave soul. I would have needed a bucket.


Anonymous said...

As I recall, Palin's comments were a reaction to the inexperience "card" thrown at her before the convention started. Therefore, she may not have made any of these comments had the Democrats not brought the issue up in the first place. Those on the Left will always find fault with those on the Right and those on the Right will likewise find fault with those on the Left. I personally believe that both Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates are truly good people and want to do what's best for all of us. We need to cut them all some "slack".

Anonymous said...

Well said good and faithful servant!

Chad said...

This wasn't just a passing line from Palin, it was a theme throughout the speakers of that night. Fred Thompson and Rudi Giuliani both made fun of community organizers.

And it's kind of ironic that the party that thinks government should be limited and the private sector does better handling these issues mocks the people who are outside of the government trying to serve the community.

Does being a community organizer make you more or less qualified than mayor of a town of 9,000? I don't know, but you have to give Obama some credit for passing up the big pay checks he could have gotten to be a community organizer, whether you think he should be president or not.

Early in the primaries I was hopeful that if we ended up with an Obama/McCain campaign that maybe we could actually get past some of the cynical, viral politics. But alas I guess that was a pipe dream.

Joel Bittle said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Yes, Ron, it's important to see that none of this occurs in a vacuum. Both sides bait each other in equal measure.

Chad, I felt very much the same as you early in the year. I still hope it can get back to a true discussion of issues, but my hopes fade every day.