October 22, 2013

MISSION MATTERS: Service and Justice

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"The pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity."

I often consider myself very lucky to work at a place that has this phrase as its Mission. How many mission statements incorporate even one of these important aspects of life (knowledge, faith or service), let alone all three. And I consider myself even more blessed to work very closely with the final component, connecting others to service opportunities. What better way to end a mission statement, what better "product" to create, than service for and with others?

We must of course always remember that as an institution of higher education, our first and foremost goal is to teach our students, empowering them to pursue that truth, that knowledge, and to become lifelong learners in the process.
But as a Jesuit institution, I believe SLU considers this the means and not necessarily the end. If all we did was graduate students who attained impressive levels of knowledge and a mastery of skills, ready for the "working world," we would be no different than a public state-school or a private research school. But this is not the end result for our graduates, but rather a means to serve the world. Our students use this knowledge and these skills to work in our community alongside others.

This service is just one step in a lifelong process — just as we hope that our students become lifelong learners, so too do we hope they will become agents for change, no matter what their life's calling may be. St. Augustine once said "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld." When he said this, I don't think he was besmirching service or downplaying its role; instead, he is calling us to recognize the role that service plays in the bigger picture of our society. While serving meals once a week in a soup kitchen is valuable, important work, it is equally important to be asking "Why do I need to serve these meals in the first place?"

Which brings me to another of my favorite Jesuit-isms: Magis. A calling NOT to do more, but to BE more. A student finds meaning in magis not when he or she decides to tutor a child twice a week instead of just once, but instead when he or she comes into my office and asks, "What is so wrong with our education system that these kids need extra tutoring every day after school?" And not only do they ask this question, they go to find an answer. That is our "product" at a Jesuit institution. That is a pursuer of truth for the service of humanity.

And that is the link between service and this concept of "social justice." They are not the same, nor are they mutually exclusive. Rather, they are integrated into a process. I firmly believe that before you can advocate for others, you must first get to know them, to know their stories, to know the issues that face their neighborhoods and communities. And there is no better way to start this process than through service.

Social justice may be our final destination, but service is an important first stop along the way.

— Bobby Wassel, assistant director, Center for Service and Community Engagement

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