(Reprinted with permission from the Christian Science Monitor, written by Gail Russell Chaddock.)
Robert Coles’s latest book, The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism, reads less like a new venture than a gleaning through a lifetime of interviews, notebooks, and tapes for an answer to the question: Why do people serve others?
The reasons people give are as diverse as the voices in this thoughtful book: civil rights activists and sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta in 1964, VISTA volunteers in Appalachia in the late 1960s, suburban housewives and privileged students in Boston’s black neighborhoods—individuals who, for whatever reason, answered the call of service.
Some signed on to please a friend or flesh out a résumé; others, out of religious conviction. For the author, service was often a means of access for his research. He got to ask questions of activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) by washing dishes and sweeping floors in their Atlanta office; to black students in Boston by keeping them company during their daily bus commute to whiter, wealthier schools.
Many who served were changed by the experience. One volunteer tutor found that his tutee’s need for “a kind of moral purpose that will carry him through any number of critical moments” gave him “a reason to locate more explicitly and consolidate his own moral purpose as a prelude to sharing it, however gingerly and indirectly.”
What is most memorable about this book is the simple goodness that runs through the examples Coles cites.
Take Tessie, a six-year-old black girl who, escorted each day by federal marshals through abusive crowds, initiated school desegregation in New Orleans. Tessie’s account of how she faced the taunts of crowds every day “turned many of my ideas and assumptions upside down,” Coles writes. “Where I expected trouble, they [Tessie and her grandmother] saw great opportunity; ... where I saw a child bravely shouldering the burden of a divided, troubled society, they saw a blessed chance for a child to become a teacher, a healer, an instrument, maybe, of the salvation of others.... A child’s idiosyncratic utterly spiritual notion of service was a key.”
There is also the memorable voice of the author. Coles is a storyteller and a good listener. He seems to delight in being taken by surprise and to be as interested in the insight that smashes a cherished belief as in one that confirms it.
Yet Tessie had learned to regard herself not as a victim, not as an outsider trying hard to enter a world bent on keeping her out, not as a mere six-year-old black girl from a poor family with no clout and no connections but rather as an emissary from on high, a lucky one designated to lead an important effort, a child given the errand of rendering service to a needy population. She had connected a civic moment in her life with a larger ideal, and in so doing had learned to regard herself as a servant, as a person “called to service.”
—from The Call of Service