On one of the first evenings after our then-foster (now adopted) daughter Teenasia came to live with us, second-grade-Jacob was at the dining room table, working on his religion homework, preparing for his first Communion.
Bill was upstairs giving 4-year-old Liam a bath and I was at the kitchen sink, holding wriggling 16-month-old Teenasia, wrapped in a towel, trying to wash her hair in the kitchen sink. I found I couldn’t hold her with one arm and wash her hair with the other.
“Hey, Jacob. Do you want to sit there and learn about your faith, or do you want to live it?”
Jacob looked up, intrigued and put his pencil down.
“I’ll live it,” he said, smiling and walking over.
As I held tightly to Teenasia so she wouldn’t bump her head on the faucet, Jacob took the spray and wet his new little sister’s hair, then added shampoo. As he worked the suds around Teenasia’s head, he looked into her eyes and narrated the process.
“You need to have clean hair. The water won’t hurt you. We’ll put a cloth over your eyes when we rinse. If you’d stop trying to get away, this would be easier,” he said.
Soon, Teenasia, distracted by Jacob’s voice and interested in what he was doing, slowed her movements, smiled at Jacob and relaxed in my arms.
Teenasia, now 13, has been washing her hair on her own for many years now and I’m not sure Jacob, now 19, even remembers that night. But for me, the evening has come to encapsulate what is true about the connection between faith and service: We need to know when it’s time put down the religion book and get to work. Going to church, joining a prayer group, reading books on spirituality cannot be ends in themselves. Faith and prayer must lead to action.
Yet, propelling a family from a weekly hour at church to a life focused on service can be complicated.
When toddler Teenasia and then- toddler Jamie joined (and re-joined, in Teenasia’s case) our family as foster children, our boys could absorb service to others by osmosis. Part of the goodness and hardship of foster care, they learned that reaching out to others doesn’t guarantee everything will work out fine.
Their pain in having Teenasia placed back with her biological father twice – once at age 2 and again at 5 – gave them an early glimpse into a world of child welfare and social services completely unknown to most of their suburban peers.
At the same time, Jacob and Liam came to understand, possibly more than some kids, the profound joy that comes with living Matthew 25 – when I was hungry, thirsty, sick or naked, you fed me, gave me drink, took care of me and clothed me.
Now that the girls are older though and living the same cushy suburban life as their brothers, with sports practices, homework, vacations and too many clothes, it isn’t as easy to demonstrate a daily commitment to service as a family as it was when we were fostering.
For awhile, I was concerned about this. I’d stare at the huge dry erase calendar in the kitchen to find more dates when everyone was available to go to serve dinner at St. Ben’s meal program; last year, I tried (and failed) to find a family vacation that could also be a service trip. But as I’ve attempted to orchestrate service into my family’s life, something else was happening. The kids were growing up, and as they’ve gotten older, people outside of the family are inviting them to service, and they are responding.
Jacob chose to go on a service trip to Appalachia instead of a fall break Florida trip with friends; Liam went to an orphanage in Guatemala with 10 Dominican students a few months ago. Jamie and Teenasia seem to be on the same trajectory. They’re eager to help, and opportunities are arising with which I had nothing to do.
What I’m seeing now, as a parent of older kids, is just as they have joined sports teams and clubs apart from me, their call to serve others is more likely to take place outside of the family as well.
As with everything, Bill and I were our children’s first teachers, their first coaches – the coordinators of their first service trips – but it is gratifying to see them moving beyond us. Their call to service will be different than Bill’s and mine.
I’m enjoying being a witness as they put down their pencils, close the religion books for the moment, and live their faith.
(Annemarie Scobey-Polacheck’s writing on faith and family life has won local and national awards. To see past columns, go to www.discoveringmotherhood.com.)