We’d just eaten an amazing meal of fresh fish and vegetables and rice. Oh, so much rice. We sat on the floor of our homestay in Tung Dap with our Moken hosts; Beautiful, airy beams; A home built by hand.
Our host asked us why we were there.
Why would ten farangs take two weeks to travel to the other side of the globe to spend a few days painting a school and planting mangroves?
Jan’s answer, as I paraphrase, was about family. In our culture we don’t live, with multiple familial generations, under the same roof. But we still seek that connection. That community.
We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
I’ve been taking these service trips through Seattle Works since they first gathered a group of people together to travel to Biloxi, MS in early 2007. It had been a year and a half since the storm devastated the Gulf Coast. I was deeply moved when I watched the storm coverage. I was glued to the TV, thinking about my cousins who live in Biloxi, thinking about the beautiful city of New Orleans I’d visited a few times with my family before the storm. So when Seattle Works decided to send a group to help hang drywall, I knew I had to sign up.
We stayed at a big church, most of us sleeping on mats on the floor. Taking four minute outdoor showers. Hanging drywall. Cleaning a nearby neighborhood. Meeting longterm volunteers who’d been there since just after the storm. Spending some time at the pub next door, playing cards – Apples to Apples. Being genuinely inspired by fellow humans from various walks of life.
One of our first nights there, a gentleman named David, who had just celebrated his 60th birthday by volunteering with his family in Biloxi, shared about Tikkun Olam.
“… There’s an important principle in Judaism – it’s a commandment of Jewish law – called Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam means to repair the world. The Talmud says: “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.” No one can fix it all; but we all have a part to play. What’s going on down here could not be more important as an example of Tikkun Olam.”
Upon our departure, I realized that experience changed me. I was definitely part of something bigger than myself.
I returned to the Gulf Coast that summer. Spending a week in New Orleans volunteering with Katrina Corps. Then went back once more, right before Mardi Gras, volunteering with Hands on New Orleans.
Seattle Works partnered with Crooked Trails last year, sending a team to Peru. I had some friends go and was convinced to take these experiences abroad. So, despite feeling like I had no vacation time and no extra money, I signed up to go to Thailand.
Thailand was amazing.
Now that I’ve been back a few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes these experiences so powerful. It isn’t just where we’re going or the work we’re doing.
It’s the people.
I’ve met some remarkable people in the Seattle Works community. Spending time traveling, serving, and bonding over beers (whether Chang or Abita!) takes you into some pretty profound relationships in a short amount of time. You learn a lot about someone when you’re spending every day with them. Often in less than luxurious accomodations. Challenging days. Sharing in breathtaking vistas. Reflecting on the work you’re doing, the people you’re meeting. Remembering what’s important. Finding shared values.
Then these lovely, overlapping social circles emerge when we’re all back in Seattle. You take a group of volunteers and recruit them for your kickball team. You take a soccer team and recruit them for your volunteer project. Before you know it, you’re attending feasts in church basements and friending inanimate objects on Facebook.
At some point, you’re not just a part of something bigger than yourself. You’re creating it.
– Noelle Smithhart