Moles for Monrovia, Puppets for Panama City, Kringle for Christmas, or Service for Springfield?

Music teacher Carrie Wellema pushed through the door to the staff room and sighed. The final bell had just rung and she could hear the shouts in the hallway as Bedlam’s students hurried out into the beautiful late October day. Carrie sighed because she had to chair a committee meeting on a gorgeous afternoon. A couple of minutes later, they started coming through the door: business teacher Red Carpenter; English teacher Christina Lopez, along with her student teacher Becky; shop teacher Gord Winkle; and finally art teacher Gregg “Rigor” Mortiss. Collectively, they comprised the service project committee.

Carrie waited until they all sat down, then waited a little longer until Gord was finished looking through the faculty refrigerator for unclaimed food (a service he preformed for free several times a week). Once they were all seated, she cleared her throat and began. “Okay, so the chapel team asked me again this morning what we are going to focus on for fundraising in chapel. Last year, when Rex was chairing the committee, we did that Whack-a-Mole for Monrovia fundraiser and I think we can all agree that was a debacle.”

Christina Lopez said under her breath to her student teacher, “It was a disaster that dreamed of being only a debacle.” Carrie pretended she hadn’t heard, and went on.

“So does anyone have any serious suggestions for a project to focus on?”

The room was silent for a moment or two. Carrie could hear the soccer team playing a game across the field. Red Carpenter broke into the silence. “Well, I might suggest again that we consider the spring break witnessing idea I proposed last year.” Christina made eye contact with Carrie and rolled her eyes. Four years ago, Red had led a busload of Bedlam seniors (mostly students on his golf team) on a mission to help the unchurched teens at Daytona Beach during spring break by doing a puppet ministry. Several of the boys in the group had disappeared and were later found on the beach with some new female “converts.” Red himself went missing on the second day of the trip. After the students spent half their afternoon doing puppet ministry, they gave up and went looking for him. They found him playing golf. Carrie looked at Red and arched an eyebrow.

“I believe I asked for serious suggestions.”

Becky, the student teacher, jumped in. “Last year at Kuyper College we had this project where we got warm hats for children in Eastern Europe. We put a gospel tract in each one of them, and then wrapped them in Christmas paper. I think our freshman class wrapped over six thousand. It was a lot of fun. And best of all, the hats were free. They were donated by the O’Burger Queen Corporation. It was really cool. The hats even had their logo on them—a golden O. I think we made a lot of children happy.”

Gregg Mortiss smiled and Gord Winkle winced. He could tell what was coming next. Gregg asked sweetly, “Did you happen to notice where those hats were made?”

Becky looked blank. “No, not really.”

“I’ll bet you my Bill Freschler ‘How to Draw Better’ video series that those hats were manufactured in China. Then they were shipped here where you wrapped them in paper, then shipped to Europe. So you cost the planet how much in fossil fuel—all in order to advertise for O’Burger Queen? Seriously?”

Gord Winkle let himself get a little angry. “Lay off, Gregg. It was a good suggestion. Plus, I like their burgers. A lot. I suppose you have a better suggestion?”

Gregg sneered. “As a matter of fact, I do,” he said. “Let’s stop buying candy to support some cause, and let’s not do a carnival to raise money, and let’s not go on some fancy, schmancy vacation. How about if we just go into Springfield and clean up the parks. Or how about if we set up a tutor program and have some of our Bedlam kids tutor kids from families trapped in underperforming public schools in our city. Or maybe we could regularly volunteer with the one group across town that works with adults who are disabled. “

Red leaned forward excitedly, slapped the table, and said, “We could do that! Christmas is right around the corner. Our kids could sell Christmas ornaments . . . or chocolates . . . or peppermint bark—that would be perfect!—and then we could donate the proceeds to . . .”

“No!” Gregg’s voice set them back in their seats like the crack of a gun. Then he said it again, this time quietly but firmly: “No.”

“But it was your idea,” Gord protested. “Why are you so mad?”

“Are any of you listening to me,” Gregg asked, his voice barely able to mask his cynicism, “or are you too busy figuring out what kind of candy you’d like students to be selling us in a few weeks? Buying and selling crap is not service. I’m trying to promote this really novel idea. What if, in teaching our kids to serve, we actually asked them to serve? What if there was nothing in it for them other than the joy of truly helping someone who could use some help? What if we tried to model service opportunities on Christ’s model of selflessly serving others?”

Gord looked like he’d just heard of a dear friend’s passing. “So are you suggesting we don’t let student council sell the Swedish Kringles at Christmas, either?”

“Aargh!” Gregg shouted as he balled his fists and struck himself just above the eyes. “This isn’t about student council!”

Gord smiled hopefully. “So we can keep the Swedish Kringles?”

Carrie recognized the look on Gregg’s face. She had known Gregg for long enough to know that although he arguably wasn’t Bedlam’s star teacher, he cared deeply about his students and about trying to make a difference in a broken world. She also knew that he had a pretty low threshold for trying to change things. The look on his face said that he was about to give up and throw his hands up in the air with exasperation at Rex and Gord’s inability to track with his idea. So she intervened.

“Gord, Red: enough!” Bedlam’s resident buffoon patrol looked appropriately abashed. “I’m sorry Gregg,” Carrie continued. “Give it one more shot.”

Gregg sighed, then paused, then smiled and tried it again. “Okay, look. I am glad we can help some people out when we do a service project. And I am sure that when Becky and her classmates sent warm hats to kids they did it with the best of intentions and felt good about the project when they were done. And I’m sure it kept some heads warm. I also know that when Red took his students down to Daytona Beach, that project made a difference for those kids in terms of their attitudes about helping others. And I also know that some kids really get excited about raising a lot of money to support a cause.”

He looked around the room and was surprised to see that everyone seemed to be listening to him, and even Red had a small flicker of understanding in his eyes (though his vigorous nodding was a bit distracting). Gregg took a breath and went on.

“Anyway, all that is good, but we are a school—we are supposed to be teaching them stuff, right? ‘Transforming their lives’ is how we put it in our mission statement. Well, then maybe instead of going on a mission trip that is at least as much of a vacation as a ministry; and instead of a single-day service project that makes us feel good; and instead of raising a bucket-load of cash that bumps up a ministry’s bottom line for a single month—maybe we ought to do something that will lead our students to make a commitment to change their own lives as well as the lives of others. Maybe we ought to show them that being a Christian means committing long term to the community they live in. Maybe we ought to show them that service isn’t about being glamorous, or having an exciting total amount of money raised, but it is about spending your life doing things that nobody else wants to do for people nobody seems to care about.”

Five minutes later, all the members of the service project committee were seriously debating long term projects in their community. There was no more talk about candy, but they were starting to talk about long-term partnerships with local groups that were trying to make a difference. Gregg sat back for a minute and smiled. If Bedlam could change like this, maybe it was time he took another look at his teaching methods. Maybe he had given up on his students and himself by always showing Bill Freschler videos about drawing. Maybe he could change, too. Maybe he could find a new series of videos about how to draw like a pro.