The St. Cyr Junior Youth Group, minus Kimberly, Gino, and Marvis
In Ruhi Book 6, Teaching the Cause, a course studied around the world by many Bahá´ís and their friends, the first few pages pose the age-old question: What does it mean to be human? To assist in our reflection, the text encourages us to consider things whose very existence requires them to give of themselves: a flame, a fountain, rain clouds, perfume…
“Can a flame choose not to give forth light and yet be called a flame?” we are asked. “Can a fountain choose not to flow and still be a fountain?”
And then: “Would you agree that the nature of a human being is to give ceaselessly—to give of one’s possessions, time, energy, and knowledge?”
I remember that the first time I studied this book, I highlighted this question with an orange marker. Starred, it, underlined it, wrote the word “YES” in block letters on the margin. I was sure I agreed. It’s remarkable, though, how easy it is to agree with something in theory, but not really internalize it…and I came to the disturbing realization last week, that, in fact, I don’t agree with the above statement. Well, no, let’s edit that a bit: I agree with it, but I haven’t fully believed in it. Not yet at least. But thanks to the St. Cyr Junior Youth Group, I am beginning to see the light.
One of the aims of the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, to which we are devoting much of our efforts in Dominica, is developing skills for service. With this in mind, by the second meeting of our group, the youth began to identify needs in their community and ways they could help address those needs. Several of the participants had the idea of visiting the elderly (“the lonely ones, to keep them company”), while others suggested cleaning homes for people who were unable to do so themselves. The mother of one of the participants had a friend who worked for an organization that combined these two services: visiting elderly and/or bedridden community members, and cooking and cleaning for them. We invited her in to talk with the group the following week, and she was thrilled with the idea of the junior youth’s assistance, as there were not nearly enough workers to reach all the homes in need. We made plans to visit a woman named Harriet the following Wednesday morning, and agreed to meet for breakfast together first, to fuel ourselves for a long day of walking and cleaning.
After walking south on the Carib Territory Road for 45 minutes or so, we reached the village of Sineku, and climbed a steep, muddy hill to reach Harriet’s home. Harriet greeted us in Creole, and the Junior Youth translated for Roushanac and me: “She says she’s happy to see us. She hasn’t received the pension funds the government had promised her, and since her cooking gas ran out yesterday, she hasn’t had anything to eat.”
Many participants in Bahá’í children’s classes are familiar with a story about Lua Getsinger, an early American Bahá’í, who goes to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Akka, and begs Him to let her be of service in whatever way is needed. He asks her to visit the home of a sick, impoverished man, and to clean for him, cook for him, and bring joy to his heart. Lua rushes off, eager to carry out ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wish. When she arrives at the man’s house, however, Lua is horrified. The stench is unbearable, let alone the foul condition of the home and the man himself. Surely, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wouldn’t want to subject her to such filth and disease…would He?
When we first arrived at Harriet’s home, I felt a little like Lua must’ve felt that day in Akka. It would be so much easier if all forms of service were fragrant and tidy. If we never had to acknowledge that the human body produces substances that don’t always smell like febreeze, and that most of our brothers and sisters aren’t afforded the luxury of pretending such substances don’t exist. And the thing is, sometimes service does involve cool glasses of lemonade and sprigs of lavender. It doesn’t, by nature, require that we get our hands dirty. But other times we, and Lua Getsinger, find ourselves face-to-face with a big, smelly mess…and a mop is leaning against the doorway.
Returning to the Lua story: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is deeply saddened by her hasty return. “I visit this gentlemen, and others like him, every day,” He tells her. “And you feel incapable of doing this just once? If the man’s home is dirty, clean it. If he is hungry, prepare him something to eat. If he is filthy, bathe him.” These are not ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s exact words, but, basically, He tells Lua that if her desire to serve is sincere, she must pick up that mop, and do what needs to be done. End of story.
And in Harriet’s house, that little hut on the muddy hill, this is what the junior youth did. What needed to be done. While I bumbled around, trying to find a way to make myself useful that wouldn’t accelerate the turning of my tummy, the junior youth—without hesitation, or needing to be told what to do—simply surveyed the situation, and rolled up their sleeves. Two of them got to work making a fire over which to brew a pot of tea: one gathered firewood from the jungle, while the other used his machete to cut small pieces of kindling. Others in the group grated nutmeg for the tea, made a broom out of dried branches and swept the floor and front walkway, ran down the road to buy some bread, washed dishes with a barrel of rainwater, collected garbage in large banana leaves, scrubbed the walls of the home with an old tattered tee-shirt, and trimmed the grass and slashed the weeds in the yard (also with the oh-so-versatile cutlass).
Though I sort of assisted the collecting-trash-in-banana-leaves process, I mainly just watched the junior youth in wonder. There were two things I noticed, in particular, about their service. The first was the range and quantity of skills they utilized. I am twice the age of most of these youth, and have a Masters degree, yet couldn’t begin to wield a machete (indeed, I have to call one of the neighbors over every time I want to split open a coconut). Nor have I cultivated the ability to haul a jug of water without half of it sloshing overboard, to identify the proper leaves to brew a pot of bush tea, to convert a discarded tin can into a nutmeg grater, to make a broom—for heaven’s sake—out of sticks and reeds. All of this the junior youth did…with grace, precision, and excellence.
Of even greater significance, though, was the spirit with which they carried out their service. It was, as far as I could perceive, entirely free of ceremony or production. There was none of the “look-at-me” behavior, no aura of self-satisfaction…just good hard work, and smiles, and an occasional joke or two.
Meanwhile, I was becoming aware of the cheerleader in my head…and beginning, thanks to the example of the junior youth, to tire of her. When I had finally psyched myself up enough to collect a few pieces of trash, she began her routine. Maybe you’re familiar with this cheerleader: she’s also known as “the insistent self,” and is the one who reminds you (while shaking her pom-poms), that You are Serving! (with a capital Y and a capital S). “Rah-rah!” she shouts. “Good for you! This task is sooooo gross, and you’re totally rising above your nausea in the name of altruism! Three cheers for Y-O-U!” And so on, until you start to feel pretty darn pleased with yourself.
Of course, it’s great to feel pleased with the work you’ve done. But what’s not-so-great is when the emphasis is placed on you rather than the work. The Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í Faith, cautious us against “the pitfalls of attachment to one’s own service.” Ruhi Book 5, Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, warns us to beware of service becoming an arena in which the self finds ascendancy. Yet, if we understand service to be the purpose for which we were created, a requirement of our spiritual existence, it ceases to become this big production and is simply life. What we do. A habit. Like when we breathe for example—we don’t even think about it. The insistent self is silent, not remarking “Wow—good for you, Denali. What a nice breath that was. Make sure people know you’re breathing. Maybe, if you’re lucky, someone will even take a video of you doing so, and post it on Facebook, and then people will admire you for the way in which you inhale and exhale. Gosh, you deserve a pat on the back.”
Now, that would just be silly, wouldn’t it?
Just as surely as I can’t hold my breath for more than 30 seconds without turning blue in the face, a flame cannot choose to withhold its light, and still be called a flame.
A book that has deeply touched my heart is Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Sadly, I rarely remember details of the books I’ve read—all that usually remains with me is how the book made me feel. Yet, five words from Cry, the Beloved Country have been forever etched in my memory. I can’t recall what exactly is taking place in the scene, but a man is expressing his gratitude to a woman who has helped him. “Thank you,” he tells her. “Truly, you are a mother to me.” And her perfect response, containing the answer to the questions asked in Ruhi Book 6, and the truth that is echoed in every human heartbeat:
“Why else do we live?”