It wasn’t so much the words that were strange. It was that it was four in the morning, and these were the first words in my day, floating up from my subconscious dreamy state. I suppose I could call it a prayer.
I’m no stranger to service. I got my father’s DNA. His life, from community councils to volunteer fire departments to the National Guard, was a perfect model of service. Since high school when I was a “candy striper” in a local hospital, I’ve volunteered for neighborhood cleanups, helped teenage moms, taught elderly people to read, and participated in scores of projects throughout my adulthood. But this prayer was a surprise. Some subconscious part of me was so moved that it was expressing gratitude.
The evening before, my trio had performed. As I looked out into the audience I saw that people were having a real good time. This was not a drunken bar audience. A couple of people told me later that they had been moved to tears. Others laughed and clapped. Happiness reigned. Once again I realized the power—and, for me, the purpose—of performance art. One of my brothers calls it the “human to human” connection. It’s also, I think, the magic of service. Happiness reigns.
What if it’s true? What if our real purpose for being born is to serve? What if—whether we believe it or not, whether it fits our spiritual and political beliefs or not—we are here only to take care of each other, to nurture each other, to make the world a better place moment by moment?
What does it mean to serve? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said about service:
“Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
I was driving a shuttle between a hotel and a retreat site where I spent a lot of my time. This was my service, and my task was simple: pick people up at the hotel and take them to the retreat site. Folks were arriving from all over the world. Some spoke English well, while others struggled to make themselves understood. Some seemed perfectly at ease, and others seemed hesitant; they had come very far for a new experience, but weren’t sure what to expect.
Everyone was connected to his or her own story. I was focused on my task, ensuring the comfort and safety of passengers, but I had stopped smiling. I felt disconnected and sad. I felt like I was using up precious air, taking up valuable space on earth. Looking back, I can see that I felt unworthy of the task of greeting so many people from so far away. I had always loved volunteering, but I felt my anger and impatience growing with the chattering adults and noisy children.
At some point, a beautiful woman from Hawaii climbed into the van with her two children. She sat beside me in the front and began to talk and ask questions about the retreat site. She’d brought the Hawaiian sun with her smile, and her laugh literally filled the van. Throughout the ride she talked about her life, her children, and why she was so happy to be at the retreat. Her joy was contagious. I looked around and saw that other folks were drawn in and were feeling at ease.
When we arrived at the retreat, she said goodbye and lifted her children from the van. She started down the sidewalk, but suddenly stopped and came back to the van. Looking me in the eye, she said, “I’m so glad you’re here.” She smiled and was off.
I began to cry. Hers was the heart full of grace. Hers was the true service, and her kindness brought me back to the reason I was driving that van in the first darn place. To serve.
The task doesn’t matter. It can be driving, performing, painting a school wall, mowing a lawn, or reading to an elderly person in a nursing home. Tasks are endless. What matters is how I serve. True service is a matter of the heart. True service leaves love behind when the server herself has left the scene.