Seeking Opportunities to Be the Minority, to Connect, and to Serve

halitll - flickr creative commonsA community of service-minded people gather to celebrate the Passover Seder.

Last week I attended a Passover Seder at a friend’s house. Nineteen of us gathered together at not one, but two, tables and took turns reading passages and singing songs from the Haggadah, then devouring the many dishes before us with extra helpings of gefilte fish and matzah crackers topped with horseradish for me. Yummers!

Before we sat down for dinner, the evening began as large evening gatherings usually do—with the requisite mixing and mingling—“What’s your name?” “How do you know the host?” “What do you do?”

As much as I wanted to, I wasn’t able to talk to each and every guest. But that wasn’t a grave issue because I’d already met a few of them at the Hanukkah celebration last year.

During dinner, the man sitting to my right asked me, “Are you familiar with Youth Service America? I used to work for them.”

The woman to my left talked about when she and her husband moved to Ecuador for 15 months to work with youth. She also shared stories about her daughters who served in AmeriCorps NCCC and the California Conservation Corps.

At the other table, a young man mused about his pending trip to Colombia to do something altruistic (I can’t remember what) while working on his Spanish.

Even the young attorney at my table works with disadvantaged youth.

There were some dynamic people in the room that evening, all committed to service, civic participation and the betterment of humanity through their careers or previous service experiences, or both. I guess birds of a feather really do flock together.

It’s ironic that I went to Africa eagerly in search of this great cross-cultural experience and got that and more. What I had not bargained for was the great American cross-cultural experience I received, learning about my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and the multitude of subcultures that make up this salad bowl we call America.

My Peace Corps experience was filled with several firsts—my first time in Africa and living in a Muslim country, the first time I met a person from Iowa, the first time I’d ever heard Bob Marley’s Woman No Cry, the first time I read Gore Vidal and Tom Robbins, the first time I attended a Catholic Mass (and it just happened to be in French), the first time I listened to Joan Armatrading and the list goes on and on. It was also the first time I was invited to a Seder. I hate to admit that, because of transportation issues (remember my last post about the challenges of getting in and out of my village), I never made it to that Seder but prior to the invitation, I had never even heard the word.

A few years later, while working for Peace Corps in Atlanta, I attended my first Seder. It’s probably no surprise that the invitation came from a colleague and former Peace Corps Volunteer.  That was years ago but I still enjoy telling people that I found the Afikoman. And that’s probably because I was genuinely thrilled that I found the Afikoman.

When we step outside of our comfort zone, the discomfort and fear that accompanies change and growth can quickly drive us right back to the safety and security of our old, familiar haunts. Yes, it’s easy and fun and even necessary to surround ourselves with those who have similar values and beliefs. But because there is so much to teach and so much to learn, I often challenge myself and others to seek opportunities to be the minority and see life from someone else’s perspective. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but it can be a rewarding experience for all involved. Knowing and understanding our neighbors, both domestic and foreign, is vital in this new global world we now inhabit.

Everyday I talk to people about why they should serve. Passion and persuasion notwithstanding, spewing off a litany of program benefits is easy. And if time is short, it’s just as convenient to provide inquirers with a brochure or direct them to a program website; both mediums give an overview of the program and detail the benefits. However, unless you’re preaching to the choir (those who really “get” service, their place in it, and its impact), it can sometimes be more challenging to help potential applicants connect the dots and understand how a service experience can broaden their horizons, increase their knowledge base and lead to…anything and everything—the possibilities are endless.

My service experience connected me to people, including my fellow countrymen, and places I otherwise would never have known. I’m convinced that the 19 of us, of various backgrounds and religious affiliations, who came together to celebrate Passover last week were able to do so because of our love and commitment to service and humanity.

Shalom and Happy Serving!

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