Growing up I remember a grey metal box that sat next to the front door of our house. It had many uses. I would keep my baseball glove in it after playing ball or it would be used as a footrest as I tied my shoelaces. My mother would leave notes hanging out the lid of this box if she was out when we arrived from school. We were not the only one in the neighborhood to have this grey metal box next to our front door; in fact, every house had one on their porch. The purpose of this grey metal box was to hold the milk delivered by the milkman. It was a service that the milk company provided and the milkman would deliver the milk on a regular basis. The milkman is now extinct, and the grey milk box is an antique.
There are other elements of service we do not see these days which have “fallen by the wayside.” At a recent confirmation celebration at our Holy Name Parish in Ketchikan, I asked the 16 candidates to raise their hands if they had ever heard of a ‘service station.’ Not one of them raised their hand. In order to verify that they were not sleeping through my homily, I asked them to raise their hand if they did not know what a ‘service station’ was. All but one raised their hand. I then described what occurred when one would pull into a service station — the driver would be greeted and questioned about the amount and type of gas needed; the windshield would be washed and the oil level checked. This type of service is rare these days.
At the beginning of 9th grade my older brother contracted rheumatic fever. He was bedridden for months. There was a steady stream of people who came to the house during that time. The doctor made house calls. The nurses would follow on different days. Each day of the week had a different teacher from the high school. On Monday, Mr. Munnell, the algebra teacher, would come to the house; on Tuesday, the science teacher; Wednesday was the day for the English literature; Thursday was Spanish and Friday was social studies. These five teachers were dedicated in providing this service — and I knew that I would have to be on my best behavior because I would have them in class the following year.
As time and technology changes, so too does our interaction with each other. We can shop online, use the ‘self-checkout’ feature at the larger stores and pump our own gas. At the same time, it seems as though fewer people are entering into professions of service. Studies show that more people are needed to serve in various professions. For example, Johnson & Johnson has released a study that indicates that there will be 800,000 fewer nurses in 2020. The National Education Association (NEA) has reported that the need for teachers in our country is identified as a ‘crisis’ — especially in urban and rural schools.
But there are those who still serve — fully and faithfully. For example and from my perspective, I see all the good work provided by Catholic Community Services here in Juneau and through Southeast Alaska. Throughout our community schools and health organizations are many dedicated people giving of themselves out of genuine concern for others. Service to others remains a great part of our society and it always involves some sacrifice. Taking the extra steps or going the extra mile is a form of sacrifice, whether it is on the part of the company or the employee. Many times those who enter into professions of service are sacrificing much. For some, it may be sacrificing a lucrative salary, for others, it may mean sacrificing time with their families (such is the case with those men and women serving in the military). But heartfelt service is an extension of charity. Our care and concern for others is rooted in doing what is right while upholding another person’s dignity. From my faith tradition, scripture tells us that Christ responded to the question, “But Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?”, by saying, “Whatever you did for one of these least brethren of mine, you did for me.”
The depth to which service and sacrifice intersect can truly impact a community. Recently I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Peace Officers Memorial Day service at Thunder Mountain High School. It was a chance to remember those officers who have died in the line of duty and gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their community. The gathering honored the brave members of law enforcement here in Juneau, Hoonah and all of Southeast, Alaska who were killed in order to provide safer communities for all of us. The outpouring of support at the memorial for those who died was a sign of a grateful community. God bless those who sacrifice and serve so that our lives may be lived in comfort and peace.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.