Families grow together while serving others

This is the first in a two-part series on service. Part two will be in the Oct. 26 issue.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples about the crucial nature of serving others. When we serve others, we are serving Christ and consequently will be welcomed into the kingdom of the Father. If we don’t, were liable to be turned away.

For Eric Fitts, director of Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic organization in West Virginia that serves the community through the teaching of sustainable practices, Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel has been one of the most influential Scripture passages in his life. It is the main reason he and his wife, Colleen, have taken on the ministry and mission of Bethlehem Farm.

“Jesus clearly extends the choice between life and death into the deepest reaches of our hearts and into the darkest corners of our society, condemning not only clear malice against others, but also inaction in the face of the needs of the most vulnerable among us,” he said.

“I also find in this passage a singular moment in Scripture where Jesus clearly states the requirements of heaven. And it is interesting what he leaves out. He does not mention prayer or belief, although both are clearly important to Jesus; he mentions the fruits of our prayer and belief, which is service, especially to the most vulnerable among us,” Eric Fitts said.

The Fitts family fosters an attitude of service, living in a community and hosting service retreat groups from all over the country on their farm. Through their ministry, they work with vulnerable people and foster a care for God’s creation.

“We think that our children will primarily pick up on our actions more than our words, so we are always seeking to serve people,” he said. “Our children can see service in action, not just as a concept. We’re also always trying to help our children think of others before themselves, or at least along with themselves.” The Fitts have two children, ages 4 and 1.

Getting kids interested

One day while on a walk with her husband and sons, ages 7 and 4, Amy Potthast started picking up litter along the way, simply because it bothered her to see it lying there. The next time the family went on a walk, the children wanted to be the ones to pick up the litter. Now, when they go for family walks, they bring along gloves and trash bags to hold the litter that the boys compete to locate and pick up. That’s the same principle Potthast and her husband, Doug Geier, use in instilling in them the need to serve others.

“Example was really important,” she said. “I think if I made it an obligation or lectured them about it, or complained about the people who littered, it would be a lot less fun. They do ask why people litter, and we talk about what they can do not to litter, and what they will say if their friends ever litter, and so on. My older son and I even co-wrote a book for Earth Day last year about a water bottle that was thrown down as litter and its adventures in getting recycled, so we got to explore the deeper issues.”

Potthast says it’s vital to tap into the children’s interest and enthusiasm, so when it comes to their choice of volunteer opportunities, they choose places their sons will like. For example, they all work together to run a monthly breakfast for parents with young children to mentor, share resources and network. The food and companionship are an enjoyable way to serve others.

“At this point, I just have to say the word volunteer, and they jump to it,” she said. “They understand that helping out is important, but we also make it fun. It’s almost always family time, and they see the results of their efforts.”

Potthast, whose family lives in Portland, Oregon, gives three keys to encouraging service in children: what they care about; where they already spend time; and what they’re capable of doing, including work that challenges them to reach beyond their capabilities.

Stronger marriage

Bender family
Members of the Bender family, from West Allis, Wisconsin, pose in a group photo during a Marian devotion. Courtesy photo

As our families grow and change, so will their capacity for service. Anne Bender and her husband, Paul, have five children, ages 13 to 20, and live in West Allis, Wisconsin. Anne is president of Roses for Our Lady, a lay organization that promotes Eucharistic and Marian devotion and volunteers with a number of other organizations. The kind of service her family performs now is different from the kind they performed when the children were small. For example, when her sons felt that they were too old to be altar servers, the Benders allowed them to decline.

“We wanted them to find joy in service and needed to understand that one size does not necessarily fit all,” she said. “We wanted to trust that God would lead them to the source of service in which they could best grow in love for him and for others. When we allowed them to give up serving as acolytes, it opened the way for us to serve as a family. Now they willingly do their best to keep the calendars free on the Saturday morning that we volunteer at our parish food pantry. We can share the gift of giving to others as a family.”

Bender points out that volunteering isn’t only good for her family; it’s also good for her marriage.

“Volunteering as a family gives Paul and I a shared experience of planning and working together, supporting each other’s decisions and growing ever more deeply in love with God and each other through a joint gift of service,” she said.

Setting priorities

For Mark and Lisa Gaier, understanding the importance of service and making time for it go hand-in-hand. The Gaiers have eight children, ages 7 to 24, and live in New Lennox, Illinois. For the past two years, they’ve participated in Family Week at Nazareth Farm, a Catholic community in West Virginia that hosts service retreats. Lisa and the children also go weekly to a local nursing home to visit a former neighbor. Like all kinds of service, these require time and commitment. In the life of the busy family, it’s not always easy to secure either of those.

“We have to learn how to slow down and listen to what God is calling us to do,” Lisa said. “It’s scary to take that step, but once you see the positive results, you wonder why it took you so long to get started in the first place.”

According to the Gaier family, serving means reprioritizing what’s really important and simplifying our lives so that we can say yes to God’s call to serve. It means seeing others in their need and realizing we have much to share with them.

“When we serve others, we take time to bond together as a family and with the people we are serving,” Lisa said. “When we do that, we see each other more clearly and love and respect each other more fully.”

In her book, “This Little Light of Mine: Living the Beatitudes” (Liguori, $5.99), Kathleen Basi focuses on living our faith through concrete actions in daily life. She says that awareness is the first step in engaging our families in service. She emphasizes to her children that not everyone has as many blessings as they do. Children especially, but adults as well, need to be sensitized to the fact that there is always someone in greater need than ourselves. To Basi, it’s a very simple principle.

“Little things, done without a lot of puffed-up self-congratulations [is what service is all about],” she said. “Just, ‘we do this because we’re blessed and it’s the right thing to do.’ Period.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.