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How Doing Works of Mercy Helps Kids Grow in Faith

My ongoing conversion to Christ has been steeped in Christian service; I truly believe that my kids benefit from that, just as I did from my parents’ lives of service. Here’s my case for doing works of mercy and other forms of service with your kids.

by Heidi Indahl

This is an excerpt from the introduction to 67 Ways to Do the Works of Mercy with Your Kids.

Perhaps as a child you had to memorize the works of mercy, inspired by the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and so on. Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of doing the works of mercy and all kinds of service with your kids, I would like to briefly share the story of how I came to be so passionate about this. It’s a story I often refer to as my “journey of service,” because doing the works of mercy (or any form of service) is an ongoing process of growth, not just an isolated action. My story might also help you better understand the philosophy behind the ideas in the rest of this book.

Parents Provide the Foundation for a Lifelong Commitment of Service

I am an adult convert to the Catholic faith. I grew up in a Protestant family, with my mom working as a children’s minister in and around churches for most of my formative years. As much as I love my Catholic faith, I must credit my Protestant upbringing for my love of Scripture and service. My parents made sure our whole family regularly served others in an intentional way. My mom was always organizing service opportunities at church; our family participated in many of these, but we also performed service activities on our own.

Often our acts of Christian service weren’t big deals. If someone had a small need that we could meet, we did, simply because we could. If we saw that the food donation bin at church was running low, we dropped a few cans in. We picked up extra cans and boxes of food that were on sale so we would have them on hand for this purpose. If we could donate to a bake sale or shop at a thrift store, we did.

We also spent a lot of time engaged in larger acts of service that left a lasting impression on me. I can still picture the industrial warehouse in a rundown area of town that was home to Sharing & Caring Hands, a Twin Cities–based ministry for those in need. We kids used to help sort bags of clothing that filled an entire room; we’d climb the huge piles and take out stuff that was especially silly or gross. (I still have doubts about donating used underwear!)

Twenty years later, I read an article about the founder of Sharing & Caring Hands, Mary Jo Copeland, who had been invited to meet with Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to the United States. The article detailed the history of her ministry and how it had grown to serve many thousands of people in need. As I read the article, I realized that my own family, along with countless other families and individuals, had contributed to that legacy. Without them, thousands of people might not have received the help they needed.

It was these early experiences that nurtured a passion for the works of mercy in my heart. As I moved into my teen years, I began to serve less with my parents and more with my friends. I travelled on Youthworks trips to sites around the United States and Mexico, and I worked food, clothing, and Christmas drives with my high school band. As a young adult, I was always actively serving in at least one or two areas; I never lost that feeling that this is just what people do.

I noticed, too, that even though my sister and I were spending less time doing the works of mercy with my parents, they were spending no less time serving on their own. Now, instead of packing Operation Christmas Child boxes with us, they were showing up at the packing facility to load semi-trailer trucks the day after Thanksgiving while everyone else was rushing to the stores. Now they were joining Habitat for Humanity weekend builds and encouraging my grandparents to do the same. The message this sent was clear: My parents served not just because it was good for us kids, but because it was good for them, too. They genuinely cared about other people.

Passing on a Passion for Service

I’m a parent now, with seven children, ages 0-14, and I’ve been thinking more about what I can do to instill this attitude in my own children. My ongoing conversion to Christ has been steeped in Christian service; I truly believe that my kids benefit from that, just as I did from my parents’ lives of service.

Like my parents before me, my husband and I have tried to act in a way that is generous to our fellow human beings, but we also realize just how much is always left to do. We have moved a lot and haven’t had the opportunity to get involved with any one group on a regular basis. Also, our life circumstances have made it sometimes feel as though we were more often the recipients of service than the givers.

Of our seven living children, three have special medical needs. Several years ago we had a house fire and lost almost all of our worldly possessions. In addition to three miscarriages, we have also had a stillbirth and an infant pass away shortly after birth. These times of being on the “other side” of need have shaped my own attitude toward serving others. Receiving the caring love of others has the potential to be a source of spiritual growth as much as serving others does.

4 Good Reasons to Do the Works of Mercy with Your Kids

Why should parents make doing the works of mercy a family priority? Here are four reasons to consider.

1. Kids who serve others with their families are more likely to serve others in adulthood.

If it’s important to you that your children grow up to be helpful adults who spend time serving others, then giving them lots of opportunities to serve others now is the best thing you can do.

John Roberto, writing in his article, “Best Practices in Family Faith Formation,” cites a Search Institute study of 217,000 sixth- to twelfth-grade youth in public schools. The study found that “youth who say their parents ‘spent lots of time helping others’ are almost twice as likely themselves to serve others.”

In many ways, this is common sense proven by research. When we do good things as a family, good things happen. Children who have done something, no matter how small, to help a person in need gain an understanding of human dignity without having to listen to long lectures; they have seen it and they know it, even if they can’t define it. Acts of service help all of us, children and adults, develop a lens of compassion through which we can view the world.

As a bonus, service activities help kids develop leadership and collaboration skills.

2. Service honors God.

Loving others through acts of service is an integral part of a mature faith, not simply an extra for our spare time. Both the Bible and the teaching tradition of the Church emphasize this. As Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). The works of mercy are a way to love God by loving one another.

The dignity of every human being, from conception until death, is the foundation of Catholic social teaching. Every human being possesses this God-given dignity because every person is loved by God: those who are homeless, children, the elderly, those imprisoned, the disabled, soldiers, teen moms … every one of us, no matter our condition.

3. Serving others nurtures a lively, lifelong faith.

Serving others is a powerful way to nurture a personal and meaningful faith in your children that they can carry into adulthood.

“Engaging in service with one’s family can be a powerful opportunity for growing in faith,” says Roberto, summarizing research on the topic. “Both children and adults are more likely to have a growing, strong faith when their family serves others together.” In each act of service, we enhance our faith by living it. Through service we show, rather than tell, our children that each member of our society has dignity.

4. When your kids help others, others are more likely to help your kids.

When your kids regularly serve others, they become part of a community of service, the seed of what St. John Paul II called a “civilization of love.” They build relationships with other generous people and with the people they serve. All those relationships may benefit your kids someday when they are the ones in need of help. A community woven together by love, respect, and mutual service is one of the most valuable assets you can give your kids.

Take the First Step

How can we help our children experience the incredible blessings that come from being the answer to someone else’s prayers? This book is, at its core, the way that my husband and I have responded to this question. It is designed to help families get started on their journey of service by taking one step at a time, no matter how small.

My husband works an often-demanding job.  We homeschool. I’m an author in my “spare” time.  How on earth do we do all of this stuff? The simple answer is we don’t. At least not all the time.

No bad solution exists to the problem of creating a culture of service in your family. Indeed, our great call as Christians is to love and to serve one another. Christ, through the Church, has called us to this great mission, and it is our job to respond with the how.

Over time, I have learned that it is always a mistake to treat service as either a to-do list item or a debit-credit system. This creates an obligatory system where people are compelled to serve and/or are demanding of service. A system or attitude of service without the virtue of humility doesn’t work. What works is to step out in faith to serve those around us with no thought of repayment, while taking on faith that when our time comes someone else will avail themselves to take care of us.

This is not easy. It is not easy to be vulnerable. It is not easy to put ourselves into situations that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, with people who are different from ourselves. It is not easy to know when obvious service might need to take a backseat as other priorities demand your family’s attention.

I want this text to serve as a springboard for your family to develop a new definition of what it means to serve as a family. A new way of thinking not of barriers, but of possibilities. Service is not an action you can finish, but an attitude you can acquire.

By engaging in intentional active service projects such as those in this book, our family has developed an attitude of service that results in what I call accidental service. While homebound with children, I often forget that the little things help: Sewing new pillows for a friend’s preschool classroom, taking time to share a phone call with an extended family member, encouraging letter writing (my daughter’s favorite). We send a gift card for a meal after surgery instead of making a meal myself. These things are service too, and they are service opportunities that come to us regardless of circumstances.

I have designated an entire section of this text to the idea of serving others without leaving home, and I hope that as a reader you will find it both helpful and encouraging if you feel you are not in a place right now to engage your family outside of the home.

I want to leave you with these key insights from my own story:

  1. The benefits of doing the works of mercy (or any form of Christian service) are enormous. It has been said so often that it is almost a cliché: People who serve others often end up getting more than they give, in spiritual and emotional terms. Teaching your kids to serve will provide them with enormous benefits throughout their lives.
  2. Parents have a tremendous impact on their kids. If helping others is important to you, and you act on that value, then you have already taken an important step in teaching kids to serve.
  3. Doing the works of mercy is a lifelong journey. That is because routinely giving yourself in service to others leads to insights and spiritual growth that change the way you serve. Taking time to discuss and reflect on your experience is key, a point that we will touch on more in part III on rflecting.

Are you ready to take that first step on your journey?

Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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