What clearing blackberry brambles on MLK Day taught me about my neighbors—and myself.

 

I’m convinced blackberry thickets are a result of the Fall.

Don’t get me wrong. The sweet fruit they yield is a product of God’s good creation (as is anything that can be turned into a pie). But their thorny, branchy abode? Pure evil. So how did I find myself giving up my Martin Luther King Day two weeks ago to snip, rake, and dig up these unredeemed vines?

Earlier that morning, I’d joined about 100 undergraduate students from George Fox University and headed east of Portland for a day of service. We met up with over 500 other students from area colleges and high schools, all of whom were giving up their day off in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We split into teams and piled into big yellow busses that took us to different sites. I was assigned to serve with a group of 35 students from George Fox, Portland State University, Portland Community College, and Mount Hood Community College. Together we made our way to a small wetlands preserve where our task for the day was to uproot blackberry brambles. The two-acre site is one of Oregon’s most diverse amphibian habitats, but it is in danger of being overwhelmed by the invasive briar. In Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster writes that service “banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.” This is never truer than when one wars against blackberries in Cascadia.

But, for the most part, students showed up just to serve. They were there just because it felt like “the right thing to do.”

As our team slogged through the two acres of muck, lopping and shoveling, we each talked about why we were there. It was a question I kept asking myself each time a thorn pierced my thin gloves. Some of the students had to be there. It was for a scholarship or class requirements. But, for the most part, students showed up just to serve. They were there just because it felt like “the right thing to do.”

My Christian students, much holier than I, connected their reasons for serving to the faith they share with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is impossible to speak of King’s legacy without also speaking of his faith. The two were inextricably linked. His public actions were grounded in a public theology. He wrote and spoke often of the “Beloved Community,” the raison d’être for the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement. In a 1966 article for The Christian Century King wrote, “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end of that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”

At the center of King’s Beloved Community was agape love. Agape love, according to King, had a distinctive quality that set it apart from other forms of love. In Strides Toward Freedom, he wrote:

It (agape) is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart.

Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24). Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets.

What really intrigued my students was why people who were not Christians would give up their day off to wrestle thorns in the mud. Reflecting later on the experience one of my students wrote:

I’ve associated service so much with the Christian mission and with our personal spiritual journeys that I don’t often look much further for reasons to serve besides the hackneyed, ‘Jesus said so.’ Charity gets associated with churches, international assistance with missionaries, and all of a sudden, serving is this act that only Christians do.

If I’m honest with myself, it’s not just my Christian college students who feel this way. I often find myself thinking that the way I serve is somehow more spiritual than those who serve “merely” for the sake of others. This exposes the shallow nature of my service. At the core, I serve to gratify myself, to add another notch of righteousness on my belt. Service ends up as a performance for Jesus instead of a “cup of cold water” to those in need. I end up serving for spiritual kudos instead of in response to overwhelming agape love.

Whether or not they know it, the fine citizens of Cascadia often ooze agape love. We like to boast that our region has the most nonprofits per capita in the country. There is something in the spirit of the people here that motivates them to spend their time and money seeking the welfare of others. It may be because it seems like the “right thing to do,” but I think it goes much deeper than that.

Service taps into that image in ways that sermons often don’t.

We are all created in the imago dei. We all bear the thumbprint of the Creator on our hearts. Service taps into that image in ways that sermons often don’t. Again, more reflection from that same student:

I’m sure it sounds obvious and trite, but on that day, we were all the same. Perhaps service, then, is the most egalitarian act we can do, turning all of us into classless servants. Each one of us there followed a call to serve and contribute to our community, and although each of us was drawn into that position of service for different reasons, be they spiritual, environmental, or simply by academic requirement, we could, by talking, helping, and loving each other, discover that service is this beautiful and gentle practice that is somehow inherently human.

Perhaps if we want to introduce our friends and neighbors to the Creator, we need to invite them to serve before we invite them to church. Maybe we need to set down our Bibles for a minute, roll up our sleeves, and get to work pulling blackberries.