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Family Life

Seeing people in need


So what’s so holy about mackerel? As a child I remember wondering about that expression as adults around me kept exclaiming, “Holy mackerel!” when they were excited, upset or awed. I do think there’s something holy about fish and fishing and not just because Jesus and the apostles spent a lot of time in boats. You may be familiar with the adage, “Give a person a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a person to fish, he eats for a year.” Some have added the dimension, “Find out who owns the river.”

I think this analogy can be helpful to families who are trying to become holy because “holy” doesn’t just happen in church. Most often it happens within the walls of our home as we try to live out the gospel imperatives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick.

So how do faith, families and fishing fit together? On numerous occasions Jesus reminds us that salvation has to do with love, and love impels us to care for our neighbors. Our closest neighbors, of course, are the people in our family, but we also know that Jesus put no limits on how far our family extends. Indeed, it extends to all corners of the earth. If we are to love our neighbor not just in theory and prayer, but also in practice and service, it brings us back to fishing. Let’s look at how families might serve fish to those in need, teach them how to catch their own fish, and make the river accessible to all those who want to fish. In other words, how can families live out their faith on the days between Sundays with the people in their own backyard and those who are yards away. To put it in parenting language, service is the natural consequence of following Jesus who called us to love.

Creating the desire to serve

Confirmation classes and scouting usually require it. College admissions officers like to see generous amounts of it. Employers and politicians like the good press it brings them. But not everyone is naturally drawn to service.

As commendable as the trend toward service projects are in our schools, I sometimes hear young people talk as though service is something to be endured rather than it being a source of inspiration. Sometimes service is meaningless busywork rather than an experience that can touch one’s soul. When this happens it often means a step is missing -- motivation. Perhaps we started with the need for service hours rather than the need.

So how does one instill motivation? Usually it starts with awareness: seeing people in need. When the need is evident, people will generally want to help. When our children saw the people at our local soup kitchen, they were touched. When they saw the dilapidated house our community planned to fix up for a low-income family, they knew how hard it would be for a family to live in that house the way it was. They weren’t trying to accumulate service hours, they were responding to a need. I found it ironic that the service hours of many of their peers were often spent doing bulk mailings for a school fundraiser or setting up tables for bingo. Not that these tasks aren’t good and necessary but they don’t put our young people in the presence of others whose lives might prick their conscience.

Perhaps awareness comes from a movie that opens a child’s eyes to the needs of people on the other side of the world. Perhaps it comes from a bus ride downtown that opens their hearts to the lives of people who have no choice but to take the bus. On the way they might see neighborhoods different from their own.

But there are limitations to becoming aware. Seeing pictures of starving children in Afghanistan, Haiti or even an urban slum in the United States doesn’t put food on their table. We can pray for them, of course, but we can also take a step beyond awareness to solidarity. Solidarity might take the form of simplifying one of our own meals or fasting for a time.

Actions of solidarity will still not directly fill bellies but they might soften our hearts. Sometimes awareness and solidarity do more to change us than to change the person in need, but that is often a crucial step in stirring the will to do something bigger. Of course it could also prompt a child to break open a piggy bank and the parents their wallets to send a monetary donation.

Many people like to do direct service. It feels good to know you’ve helped someone in a tangible way, fed somebody even if it isn’t fish, helped them build a home as with Habitat for Humanity, entertained folks at a local nursing home, and so on. These are good things, and most parents would like to provide opportunities for their children to help others. Assuming that the groundwork has been laid and the family is motivated to help, there are several obstacles that still might get in the way: lack of time; lack of appropriate service that young children or a whole family can do together; lack of enthusiasm by some children or a spouse.

Nobody has enough time. Most families feel stretched trying to balance job and family responsibilities. Adding community service, as laudable as it sounds, may just feel like it’s too much, at least right now. A family may have two wage earners, leaving little discretionary family time. A family may be taking care of elderly relatives or be head of the parish council and already serve on more committees than days of the week. A family might consist of a single parent struggling to make ends meet. Sometimes it may be irresponsible to spend time saving the world when one’s home commitments need attention.

But then again, a family might be busy about the wrong things, or at least unimportant things. The challenge is to honestly look at one’s commitments and review priorities. Do the children really need to play soccer, basketball and baseball? Do you as parent have to coach, organize the rummage sale and chair the Parent-Teacher Organization? Suffice it to say that some families may be spending so much time trying to get ahead that they don’t have time to head in the right direction. Stop and assess.

Busy families can overcome some of this time crunch, however, by turning some family time into service time. For example, the family wants to go camping. Why not pick up litter as you hike. All families have to eat. Perhaps you could invite a neighbor who lives alone to join you some evenings, or fix a little extra and have your child join you in taking it to that family that just had a hospitalization or a death.

When some of our children were between 5 and 10 they were too young to do serious work at the local Habitat for Humanity house that we had committed to help build. They could, however, do serious dirt. It was time to prepare the pathway to the front door, and there was no bulldozer. Our human bulldozers reveled in moving dirt from one piece of ground to another. It was their thing, and they were very good at it. It took a little longer, but every time we drive by the house, they know they had a hand in its foundation. It may take a little creativity, but finding projects that children can do with their parents is worth the trouble.

Lack of enthusiasm can be addressed by the four “F” words.

Find the right cause. As an adult you might feel that a crucial issue in your community is cleaning up pornography outlets. Your child, however, might be into babies. Maybe collecting baby items for a crisis pregnancy center or volunteering child-care for parent meetings is the place to start. For beginners it’s usually best to start with concrete actions that have visible results. Picking up trash at a local park is easy for even toddlers to participate in, and the result can be readily seen. Teens may want to work for the prevention of sweatshop labor by their peers in other countries. Don’t just study the issue; personalize it by checking the origin of the clothes in your own closets. Go with your child’s natural enthusiasms if you want service to be more than a one-night stand, even if it means organizing a loud and raucous rock concert to raise money for the latest world calamity or to cure a disease.

Do it with friends. Friends not only make the work go faster, they also make it fun. When our children started balking at some of the outings we proposed, like standing for an hour prayerfully protesting the cross that the Klan had put up in downtown Cincinnati, it made it more palatable when we said, “Your friend, Luke, will be coming too with his parents.” Of course Luke’s parents were saying, “Your friend, Aaron, will be coming too.” As they got older, we parents became more invisible and trusted youth ministers and other, usually younger adults to gather them for outings that often involved large groups and many miles in a bus.

Make it fun. Sure, we hope eventually that our children will embrace service for its own sake and because it is the right thing to do, but all of us come with impure motivations. If pizza and an overnight can make it more appealing, go for it. When we realized we were asking our children to stretch beyond their comfort zone, we also agreed to stretch beyond ours by adding, “Oh, yes, and afterwards we thought we’d go to that new horror movie you’ve been asking about.” Bribery? Maybe, but then few of us operate out of completely altruistic motives.

Include food. Jesus used bread and wine to help his apostles understand the mystery of his death and resurrection and asked them to repeat the ritual of the last supper. He knew that eating was something we had to do often and regularly. When we eat together, we stop, and, I hope, talk. But even if food didn’t carry this dimension, it reinforces the fun quotient of an activity. Most of our family service outings ended with a trip to the bakery.

Parents too hard on themselves

As rewarding as direct service can be, there comes a time when the thoughtful person wonders if such a Band-Aid approach is enough. Maybe there’s a way to teach people to fish for themselves. Youngsters learn this when they move from being the “baby” to being the big brother or sister who now has to show what it means to share or teach a younger sibling how to tie shoes. When teens move from working at a soup kitchen to teaching an unemployed person computer skills or volunteering as a peer mediator at their school, they are helping to stop the cycle of poverty or fighting, not just to fix a problem for a day.

If empowering others is harder than just feeding someone a fish sandwich, changing the system or doing advocacy work may be even harder. It takes a fair amount of sophistication to work in the political arena and to influence unjust systems so that the river will not be polluted and anyone with the will to fish will have access to the public waterways. Advocacy work for the disenfranchised may be beyond the expertise of many families, but even small children can sign a letter to the editor with their parents. The questions we must ask are: Why is an injustice happening? What needs to change to make this more fair? What can my family and I do to make a difference?

While the kind of service I’ve been describing is often prompted by religious conviction, certainly there are many generous, loving people who do significant works of service and sacrifice yet espouse no faith, at least in the sense of organized religion. They do the gospel while not naming or claiming it. Are they holy people? I would say yes, even if they reject the term. It reminds me of the story Jesus told about the father who asked his two sons to go out and work in the vineyard. One said no but then went out and did the work anyway. The other said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Who did the will of the father? (Matthew 21:28-31).

On the other hand, there are many people of faith who also would be hesitant to call their families “holy.” They may not be heavily involved in the kinds of service I’ve described, nor do anything more than the standard religious practices such as Sunday Mass, grace before dinner, and bedtime prayer. I think they sell themselves short.

The one thing that most surprised me in the research I did for Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference was how hard parents were on themselves. Most of the families I interviewed were religious. Indeed, many were Catholic and serious about their faith. But many wondered whether their children would keep, or return to, the faith and if they would really make a significant difference in our world. They all said that deep down they knew their kids had good hearts and sound values but they didn’t look like holy cards of the “Holy Family” and their children had not become priests or nuns. They wondered if they had done enough.

Several parents fretted that their parenting was substandard because their children had trouble in school and looked as if they were headed for a career in video game testing. Yet I knew these were men and women who had poured themselves out for their children, learning how to nurture a child with attention deficit disorder or a learning disability. They spent long hours monitoring homework or wringing their hands over their child’s impulsiveness. (“My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been”: Luke 2:48.)

I listened to stories of divorced parents who weren’t sure they still had a place in the church and feared their divorce might hinder their child’s ability to be faithful to a future marriage commitment. (“Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her”: John 8:7.)

One mother explained regretfully that she couldn’t take the time to contribute a quote to my book because she was pressed with job deadlines and volunteering at her children’s schools. This, from a wife and mother of nine who organized peace camps in her spare time. (Mary, Joseph and Jesus spent almost 30 years doing their jobs and taking care of daily life before Jesus took on a public ministry -- “My hour has not yet come”: John 2:4.)

Another wondered whether her homosexual son would find a home in the church she loved or would he feel rejected. (“And a sword will pierce your heart”: Luke 2:35.)

Most families spend many hours working miracles with a kiss and a Band-Aid, feeding multitudes with too little food or money, nursing sick children and sometimes helplessly watching as a son or daughter dies a tragic death from an accident or a long illness. (“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother”: John 19:12.)

Some families didn’t even consider themselves families because they didn’t have children and, therefore, felt they didn’t belong. (“ ‘Look, your mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ Jesus replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ ”: Mark 3:32-35.)

I was talking to some of the holiest people I knew. They sang, danced and drank at weddings, as at Cana. They worked hard like Martha and wept like Mary at the deaths of family members like Lazarus. They were people who had sacrificed time, money, convenience, careers or health in the care of their children and their neighbor’s children, trying to make this world a better place. They did all these things because they believed the words, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my people, that you do unto me.”

And they don’t think they’re holy? Holy mackerel!

Susan Vogt is a wife, mother of four children and director of family ministry for the diocese of Covington, Ky. Her most recent book is, Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002