photo credit: Chapitas

During the 2006 Christmas break, my family and I put together a couple of quilts for orphans in Africa. One of my brothers had recently helped make a bunch of quilts to send to Africa for his Eagle Scout project, and another had put together easels for African schools for his project. My mother had just returned a few months earlier from a service trip to Zambia, and I had recently organized a ward service project to raise funds for an assemble 900 hygiene kits to be sent to Zambia.

You can see that my family has caught the Africa bug, and each of us is involved with charity work there. But almost two years ago, our service was non-experiential, with the exception of my mom. Having worked for a few weeks among the African people we were helping, our service projects took on new meaning for her. And so, once we completed the first quilt for our Christmas project, she told us with tears in her eyes how much this simple little quilt will mean to the person who receives it.

She had experience, and for her, the people we were serving had names and faces.

Not having personal experience does not in any way diminish the importance of the work being done. We were still making quilts, regardless of our knowledge of the person who would later enjoy the fruits of our labor. We knew in our minds that this service was important and that we were doing good, yet our hearts hadn’t fully caught on.

My own non-experiential charity work ended when I saw the 900 hygiene kits my ward had assembled being distributed to the people who needed them. Seeing the impoverished women receive a simple toothbrush and hand soap was a startling smack in the face I’ll never forget. It was then that I realized that hygiene kits are great, but so much more is needed! Like my mother, I now had experience that would impact my service from then on.

I pondered this principle as I was doing temple work this week with my wife. Here we were doing some of the most important on Earth—sealing families together for eternity—and my heart wasn’t in it. Sure, I know it’s important, and I know the significance of the ordinances we were vicariously performing. But still, I didn’t feel it, because I hadn’t experienced it. I’ve experienced my own sealing, of course, but I’m here referring to the experience of seeing/knowing these people for whom the work is done. Having been sealed myself, I know how important and great it is, but not knowing the people I’m doing work for means I can’t adequately apply my own experience to their situation. These people whom we were serving were just names and dates, printed on blue and pink cards, quickly forgotten as we moved on to the next.

And that saddened me. I wanted to be able to know the faces and lives of those names on the cards, making my service more personally meaningful and rewarding. But just as with the charity work, I knew and know that regardless of my lack of personal experience, the work is no less important and my part in it is just as helpful.

Yet still, I’m fascinated by how service is transformed through personal experience. Thomas Paine once expressed how I now feel:

The mind, in discovering truths, acts in the same manner as it acts through the eye in discovering objects; when once any object has been seen, it is impossible to put the mind back to the same condition it was in before it saw it. (Thomas Paine, via Quoty)

Just as I will never look at a quilt or hygiene kit the same after having served among the people who they will benefit, so too I desire personal, transformative experiences that will enrich and enhance all the other types of service I will be involved in through the coming years. I am convinced that effective service requires both our hearts and minds, and while it’s easy to conceptually and intellectually understand the importance of our work, one of the most difficult and meaningful achievements is to acquire the experience that will let us feel in our hearts the individual impact of the service we render.

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