By Dan Haag
During my freshman year of high school, my theology teacher was a decidedly “unpriest-like” priest named Brother John. He always wore jeans and a ratty sweater that did its best to hide his collar.
More often than not, he came to class late because he’d been sneaking a cigarette on the hill beside the school building.
He lugged his guitar with him everywhere he went and during lunch he’d often jam with some of the older kids in the study area.
Brother John was not like the other priests I’d had to that point in the school year. He rarely raised his voice and seemed more comfortable quoting Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan than the apostles. In a school full of stern faces and dark colors, Brother John was a needed oasis of calm.
After Christmas break he brought in a guest speaker, a fellow priest named Father Clemens who had been one of his instructors at seminary.
Father Clemens had been involved in community organization on California college campuses during the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke to us at length about the era and what it had meant to him to be involved and to help others.
Though time has eroded a lot of what he specifically said, one thing he spoke of that day has always stuck with me: “How does serving others make you feel?”
Up to that point, I hadn’t considered that question. Frankly, at the age of 14 a banana had deeper thoughts than me. I was preoccupied with things like grooming my mullet and why Sue Ryan wouldn’t pay any attention to me in band.
But the question stuck with me for some reason. I’d participated in various youth service projects through church, school and Boy Scouts. But I usually filed such ventures as shoveling snow for an elderly shut-in or collecting canned food for a shelter under chores: work that had to be done in order to get on to something better. Sure, the recipients were happy, but that was to be expected. I was supposed to feel something, too?
But when Father Clemens asked the class how service made us feel, I experienced my first serious light-bulb moment as a teenager: helping others fed the soul and provided building blocks to a person’s character.
I thought back to the previous summer when I had been “forced” by my parents to volunteer at a day camp for foster kids. By all of my wailing and gnashing of teeth, you’d have thought I had been sentenced to life in the electric chair.
After a summer of chaperoning young kids to and from activities, cleaning up various spills and vomits and leading sing-a-longs, I was frazzled and worn out. I also remember feeling a glimmer of purpose, like maybe – just maybe – I had helped some kids enjoy their summer. It was a weird, foreign emotion for a 14 year old who really just wanted to belt out Night Ranger tunes and own a Ferrari, but there it was.
After Father Clemens left, Brother John asked us to write a short story on what we thought service felt like. I jumped right in and penned a Bible-themed masterpiece starring a plucky 14 year old boy (with a mullet) who handed out leaflets and put up posters to help organize the Exodus.
It was full of cringe-worthy artistic interpretation – I think my hero called Moses “dude” – but I infused the young lad with such enthusiasm, Brother John gave it an ‘A’ with some comments: “You get how it feels. Don’t forget to use it.”
I hope I never do.