“I long to follow Mother Teresa’s example,” the woman wrote, “and perform some transcendent, life-changing act of service. I mean real selfless service when there is nothing in it but the act itself. But what action can I really take now? I have three young children at home demanding every minute of my attention. I can’t jet off to India to work with lepers or spend a month in an AIDS clinic in Africa. At the moment my calling is motherhood, and motherhood is my prayer.”
It’s true: Motherhood is an all-consuming vocation, as is fatherhood. But though I found myself nodding in agreement as I read this lament (from Suzanne Oliver in the wonderful book The Faith Club), it also seemed to raise an obvious question. Can’t parents and children engage in service together?
Of course they can, often with life-changing results—as shown by my conversations with some of the people I consider to be exemplary Seva practitioners.
Fred Feusahrens is a retired Catholic priest in a Richmond diocese. When I first began exploring the concept of selfless service, my cousin John Tucker told me I couldn’t possibly write about the subject without spending time with Father Fred.
John was right. Father Fred is one of those immensely kind souls I’d ask for help any day, knowing that it would be gladly and lovingly offered. He strives always to be present to those around him, giving them his full attention, because, he says, that’s how Jesus lived.
The first time I talked with Father Fred, I asked him how he became interested in service.
“Oh,” he said, looking surprised. “It’s always been part of my life.”
He was raised in the 1950s and ‘60s in a crowded, vibrant, Catholic home in Washington, D.C. “I tell people that I’m an only child and I’m one of six.” His Irish mother and German-descended father adopted his five cousins when their birth parents failed to care for them. Fred’s mother and father also took in five “grands”—their own parents and an elderly aunt. All thirteen lived in a four-story row house with one bathroom.
Fred’s family immersed itself in helping others, usually through church: clothing drives, food drives, any cause taken up by the parish. He learned service as a way of life—and it stuck with him.
The same is true for a young woman I met in Portland, Oregon, Katharine Parkinson, who works with homeless women. Even before her graduation from college, K.P., as she’s known, had learned how to practice Seva deeply and with genuine commitment. How? Her mother took her along when she volunteered for programs like Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity. K.P. liked the feeling she got from helping others, so in college she spent her spring breaks volunteering for charities and social justice groups. In time she decided to make a career of service.
Our world abounds with opportunities to help others. No international travel is required, and you can take your kids and grandkids along. In fact, helping those in need can be an important component of building a child’s character.
It may backfire, of course. I’ve known people whose parents’ zeal for volunteerism—do-gooder work, as those sons and daughters came to call it—spoiled them for life. They view service work as a nice pastime for some people, but it’s definitely not for them.
More often, though, teaching youngsters to serve others kindles a flame within them. By showing our children and grandchildren how satisfying it can be to help someone in need, we nurture a flicker of compassion that’s likely to grow within them for the rest of their lives.