Growing up, my sisters and I were never asked if we wanted to serve or give of our time. It was expected. It was truly ingrained in us as part of our DNA.
This morning, as we were reflecting on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in our “sisters” chat, we recalled how our parents instilled this into us. As a family, we worked with our congregation to welcome a family of refugees from Vietnam, from helping them set up their home to the harrowing experience of teaching them to drive.
On Sunday mornings, we would drive to a local group home before worship to pick up developmentally disabled adults to join us at worship. During the summer, we would tend the garden at the women’s safe house from abuse that my father’s Community Mental Health Center ran. It was a “secret” location, but my parents wanted to make the place beautiful with flowers and we took care of that.
Our neighbors were an elderly couple with a very large yard, which we would take turns mowing. We weren’t allowed to accept money but on a hot summer day they could give us popsicles. In the winter when we shoveled their snow, it was hot cocoa
When our childhood caregiver, Mrs. Pederson, no longer came to our house, we continued to visit her regularly. I firmly believe that this practice is one of the reasons I came to love pastoral visitation. I used to go with my mom to nursing homes to visit old friends from church, a practice that made my transition to a nursing home chaplain for a time a natural career trajectory.
This pattern of service as a family served as a cornerstone for my own practices as a mother. I think my sons were 2 and 4 the first time they went to the homeless shelter with me, the one where I eventually became president. They literally grew up around the shelter, helping to put on Christmas parties to being young elves to Ian finally taking on the role of Santa.
They never complained when after opening our stockings early Christmas morning, we would head off to the shelter to help with brunch and provide a worship service, with my sons providing music. It was just part of our life.
As pastor’s kids, they first went to the nursing home with me on visits in car seats, but by the time they graduated from high school, they would lead worship or sing for the residents, and it wasn’t like pulling teeth to get them to do it. It was just what we did, who we were.
Sunday, in my children’s sermon, I talked as much to the parents as the kids, when I shared that probably the most important thing I ever did as a parent was to pitch in and volunteer and expect my sons to join me.
It isn’t because I was a superparent. I made a lot of mistakes. But I truly believe that the verse that informed my parents’ raising of my sisters and me, and my own approach to parenting, was accurate. “Train up a child in the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22: 6)
They also went on their first protest marches with me in strollers. I remember pushing them along when I was the featured speaker at a “March to Take Back the Night” Rally, emphazing healthy and healing approaches to sexual violence. So it was no surprise when both of my sons became leaders as Consent and Relationship Educators at Harvard, including organizing Denim Day, to address sexual violence.
The greatest legacy we can provide for our children and grandchildren, or young people for whom we can serve as mentors, is the legacy of serving and working together, as well as pursuing justice. It binds you together in ways that will strengthen you when the storms of life come. I am quite certain that serving together made my sons and me closer and helped us navigate some VERY rocky experiences.
As we reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. today and seek to follow in the path he trod, I think the place to start is through shared service, building it into the DNA of your family and community. It is never too late to start.
My father used to say that one of the greatest challenges in modern parenting (or grandparenting) was not to limit yourself to watching your kids “do” stuff, like sports or music but rather to get involved with them, to serve together.
The days of watching them will end, but when you serve, the legacy goes forward, and that is what helps make the world a better place and what it means to live what you believe.