Twice each year, St. Monica School has “Rice Bowl Day.” Instead of the normal hot lunch, children are served a simple meal of rice, bread and water and students donate the money they would have paid for hot lunch to Catholic Relief Services. On the way to school, I was explaining the day to Jamie, our five-year-old, and she was having trouble understanding that some people did not have enough to eat.
“In some places in the world, a child might only get one bowl of rice to eat each day,” I said.
“Why? Why don’t they have a refrigerator with lots of food?”
“Because their parents don’t make a lot of money and they can’t afford a refrigerator or electricity,” I said. “All they can afford is a little rice.”
“But we have a refrigerator.”
“And a lot of rice. We should give our rice to them.”
I agreed and told Jamie we were also donating some money to help buy rice. I dropped her off at school and she left the minivan satisfied, thinking probably that the problem was solved. As I drove off, I couldn’t help but reflect on the instinctive sense of justice that children have—we have food; you don’t; we’ll share ours. To Jamie, there was nothing complex about the idea of food distribution. It didn’t occur to her to question whether or not our family had responsibility to feed children we had never met. She recognized that we were accountable for the simple reason that we had food and they did not.
Helping children to move beyond their immediate circle in response to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor,” requires parents to lead the way. Our children take our cue in all things—but perhaps most of all in terms of determining how they see themselves in relationship to others. A girl in my son’s class recently told him that she believed poor people were lazy—“If they’d just work harder, like my dad does, they’d have enough money,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to help them.” I very much doubt that this little girl came to her opinion about poor people on her own. Rather, she was either directly instructed by her parents or picked up bits and pieces of enough conversations to draw this conclusion. In either case, I feel sorry for her—sorry that she was robbed of a generosity that comes naturally to children; sorry that she was robbed of a compassionate world view; sorry that she will grow to connect suffering with personal fault.
Even among parents who do feel a call to see all people as “neighbor,” however, it can be difficult to stretch children’s vision. For a while, our family was volunteering one Monday a month at the St. Vincent de Paul meal program on the south side. I knew our time there was valuable for our family. The program—filled with people of all ages and races—taught our kids that there is no one “look” to poverty. It taught them about our belief that we have a responsibility to serve. For Bill and me, serving at the program provided a monthly kick in the fanny. It reminded us that we had absolutely nothing to whine about —that as stressful as our life might seem occasionally, our stable jobs, heated home, full pantry and functional family are out of the reach of many. Yet, as much as I appreciated what the meal program was teaching all of us, I am sorry to report that we no longer go regularly. Why? Often, there’s a different reason each Monday—from sports practices to homework to general over-scheduling. And I recognize that whether we like it or not, we are allowing these reasons not to go to St. Vincent de Paul to quietly teach our kids that just about everything else has priority over serving the poor.
But Jamie’s determination that there’s enough rice to go around and my son’s classmate’s dismissal of the needs of the poor have stirred something within me once again. I’m looking at our family’s dry erase calendar with a little more intentionality than I have in the past few months. I have no illusions that our family’s service at St. Vincent de Paul is going to change anything substantial in the lives of those we come into contact with on our Mondays there. Indeed, the best we can hope for is that guests of the program will feel that there are six more people in our city who think it’s important that they get a scoop of stew and a glass of cold milk that evening. The substantive change I’m going for is the one that happens in the hearts of those who serve. Every ladleful of corn given out, every piece of bread buttered, every cup of coffee poured is one more opportunity for my children to consider who they are, what they’ve been given, and what they’re called to do for the greater world. Just as participating in school sports lays the groundwork valuing exercise as an adult, I have to believe this program lays the groundwork for adult choices that could indeed bring about true change. Eventually, the goal is a shorter and shorter line at St. Vincent de Paul and other meal programs around the city. But for the leaders of tomorrow to make this happen, they first need to see the problem as children. One Monday a month. Easier said than done. But we’re going to try again.