How One Idea Changed the Way I See Service

What is kindship? This author explains why it's importance in service work.

Have you ever stopped to ask: “Why is service a good thing?”

From required school service hours to employer-sponsored volunteer days, service has become an integral part of being a “good” person. But why is service a good thing to do? Are there are good and bad ways of doing service? Is doing service about feeling good about ourselves? Is the goal of service to change someone else? 

The central question that has the power to change everything about how we approach service is this: What is my relationship to the people I come into contact with while doing service? 

I teach a service-learning course for college students. Of all the things I have my students read, their favorite by far is Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle, SJ. Father Boyle revolutionized the way a lot of us think about service. 

Speaking from his decades of experience among individuals who had formerly been in gangs, he upends the traditional hierarchy of the “server” and the “served,” or who is “good” and who is “bad.” Instead, Father Boyle offers the language of kinship to describe a world in which “no one [is] standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.” 

Kinship offers the antidote to the world’s most serious ailment, which is the idea that some lives matter less than others.

At the heart of Father Boyle’s vision of kinship is a bold proposition: despite appearances, there is only one human family and we are each a part of it. Within a Judeo-Christian framework, the kinship of all people arises from the radical idea that every one of us is made in God’s image and that each human life is of equal dignity and importance in God’s eyes. 

Kinship doesn’t mean that we are all the same. Our differences are real and they matter. It would be offensive for me to pretend that I can fully empathize with a single mother raising her kids in and out of homeless shelters. With the privileges I was born into and the opportunities I’ve been given along the way, it would be naive to present myself as a role model at a Boys and Girls Club for kids there to imitate as if we all had the same starting line. 

Kinship is not about seeing past our differences — to try to do so would be to turn a blind eye to important facets of who we each are. Rather, kinship means appreciating the unique mystery of each person. It means treating people in a way that reflects our fundamental relationship to each other: as fellow brothers and sisters. 

So, why is service a good thing? And what is the hallmark of “good” service? Service must begin with and ultimately point to a truth that is both “self-evident” yet hidden underneath the subtle and overt lies embedded in our social hierarchy: we are all created equal. 

We are called to service so that we can remind ourselves and others — especially the marginalized — of the truth that we are all related to one another, that we are kin.

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