Monday, March 19, 2012

Muslimat al-Nisaa

Aaron Colston '14

    The house in East Baltimore we visited that weekend made me think twice about “community service.” The house was the storage space of a shelter for Muslim women who were victims of domestic abuse until the house was ransacked. Clothes were sprawled on the floor of the living room and the bedrooms upstairs, part of the ceiling dangled like wrapping paper, toys and books lay twisted on the carpet. They left their mark by scrawling on the walls along the stairs, the threshold, and the living room the word “kufar,” Arabic for “infidel.” By the time we started taking the clothes and toys in bags and plastic tote boxes people began to pour slowly out of the houses on the street to watch. Our blue-gray gloves and white masks over our mouths and noses were clear signals that we weren’t a part of their community. So what were we doing, really, on this “service” trip?
     Part of it did have do with “giving back.” The time we gave to helping clean and organize the house freed up the shelter for its own work. What might have taken months took about two days. Not only that, but some of the community made use of the clothes and furniture that the shelter decided to give away in a “free yard sale.” With the time we had, we were able to practically clean up an entire house. Real work--concrete service--had been accomplished.
    But at the end of the second day of work on the house, the truth stood in the back of my mind that for all our hard work we had only scratched the surface. Crime does not leave a city with ease. The same goes for domestic abuse. In the large scale, that shelter is just one attempt to help a population within the community in Baltimore. The problems imaginable only magnify the further we extend what “community” means--neighborhood to city, city to county, to state, to country, to planet, ad infinitum.
    Yet so do the blessings imaginable, so long as we keep things in perspective. It would have been too ambitious for me or anyone else on this trip to think that we could have solved another community’s problems in ten days, let alone one weekend. All we can do is hand over ourselves in the little way we can--and when we see that the self we have given is but a grain of sand in the ocean of the world’s troubles, our littleness hopefully begets great humility. That said, I think that “community service” has been successful when two things happen. One, that the little work done over the weekend, while not ending the problem, shows a community that they aren’t alone in their struggle, and two, when the person serving becomes humble in their service.

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