The email flashes across my screen: “Headed to Kyrgystan to work for HK!! 5 days and counting!”

HK, if you haven’t guessed, is “His Kingdom,” and the author is a former student who has spent time in eastern Turkey with nothing but a Bible and two dollars in his pocket, preaching to village Muslims. In this “destination service work,” he is not alone.

This spring, thousands of young people have set off for suffering hot spots in Africa, Appalachia, and Central America to make the world a better place. Others will soon graduate and set aside mere ambition to live lives of voluntary poverty, teaching in underserved schools, working in HIV-AIDS hospices, cooking in homeless shelters.

Service has become a rite of passage for America’s youth. Journalists like Nicholas Kristof and activists like Paul Farmer have rallied hearts and minds around everything from human trafficking to environmental collapse. Hollywood celebrities have added their names to causes from Darfur to Gaza.

In the face of so much ardent good work, a drumbeat of reaction has sounded. Several snarky blogs poke fun at social justice. A book released last month, “Runaway Radical,” recounts the cautionary tale of an idealistic young Christian who jettisoned career plans in order to go to Africa, with disastrous results. He returned to the States with a burning sense of betrayal and disillusionment.

These skeptical times certainly lead us to ask: Do we really know what we are doing, in what we call “good” work? Are we alleviating suffering? Or are we pandering to First World guilt and egotistical needs to feel worthy and admirable?

And this: Have we set so high a bar on “worthwhile” service efforts that we demand heroism — the far-flung destination — when the local food pantry and nursing homes are desperately short-staffed?

Michelle Sterk-Barrett, director of the Donelon Office of Community-Based Learning at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, is a rising expert on issues of service: best practices in preparation, execution, and the processing of often life-changing encounters. She argues that service experience has a huge impact on the future trajectory of both Christian formation and citizen engagement.

Sterk-Barrett’s recently completed doctoral dissertation is a must-read for anyone interested in the value of service. Using longitudinal data and comprehensive interviews before and after service experiences through the Boston College PULSE Program for Service Learning, she found that service changes students’ world views and self-concepts in critical areas:

  • Undergraduates who perform some kind of sustained service during their college years discover that social problems are far more complex than they’d previously assumed.
  • They develop a powerful sense that the individual can improve conditions for those who suffer and can influence social values.
  • They discover in themselves a level of social concern that changes them into people who identify themselves as engaged, potential community leaders who question prevailing consumerist norms, and want to make constructive change.

    (In contrast, the control group in her study, undergraduates who did not engage in service, experienced zero change in all these categories.)

As an added benefit, service may well be the most powerful option we have for engaging the young in faith journeys, in ways that worship and even fellowship groups no longer do.

Sterk-Barrett calls service an “eye-opening experience” in a society where many adults “have made decisions that prevent our children from knowing those facing injustice in the world. In a desire to have our children have access to the best educational opportunities and minimize the potential for them to live in unsafe environments, we have collectively segregated ourselves, so that it’s nearly impossible to know and build relationships with people living in poverty.”

The result of this segregation: “Stereotypes [that] perpetuate the belief that the poor are fundamentally inferior to those who have been ‘successful’ in traditional terms.”

Service, if done well, has the power to transform.

The heart of Christianity is compassion. Jesus continually taught, modeled, and preached the absolute necessity for us to remove the blinders of our comfortable lives and embrace the “stranger,” the cast out, the wounded. The “truth” isn’t to be found in isolated spiritual refinement, but in relationship.

To do service — or compassion — well, entails humility and partnership with those served. But — and this is key — the students who serve in Sterk-Barrett’s study are partnering in programs that are monitored for safety (both of those served and volunteers), efficacy, and integrity.

Those new to service tend to leap in full of “idealism,” believing that they can change the world overnight. They soon discover that service is hard, frustrating, and sometimes “thankless.” Desired outcomes don’t occur. People aren’t grateful. Life is hard. If they stay with it, they will learn valuable lessons about a path that really entails a shift in perception — from savior to servant — and a journey of small steps, letting go of expectations and simply being with those who would otherwise be totally isolated in their powerlessness and despair.

In time, the knowledge born from compassionate solidarity can be leveraged to work for structural change — but only once a relationship has been firmly established and shared goals defined.

Finally, and maybe more important than anything, service isn’t sustainable without a community of support and a means of regularly reflecting together upon individuals’ exposure to pain, emptiness, want, hunger, and suffering.

Service is a valued spiritual practice when it is seen as one of the ways that we search for God. Like any spiritual practice that becomes orthodoxy, it can become self-serving, misguided, extreme. This is nothing new. Stakeholders (advocates, proponents, leaders) begin to propound “rules” and “test of purity.” Think self-mortification. Think indulgences. Sins have been committed in the name of service going both ways: People are sent out with insufficient preparation. Desperately isolated and needy people, on the “receiving” end, are bitterly disappointed by fly-by, inconsistent efforts.

A great Jesuit teacher, Brian McDermott, now at Georgetown University, once said to me, “The mystic’s path is a humble one.” The same is true of service. Walking alongside those who suffer is a practice that shouldn’t be reserved for special occasions. It is a crucial element of the great world religions. Sterk-Barrett’s work is significant not only for college students, but for all of us.

In the best of circumstances, service becomes not duty, not heroic challenge, but the opportunity to become more fully human.