Heroic Acts of Service: Works of Mercy with Young Children

Jeannie Ewing

Heroic Acts of Service: Works of Mercy with Young Children

I’m not sure I’m the most suitable person to share best practices when it comes to service as a family. When I think of the word service, my mind immediately turns to volunteering. And we, as a family, in this particular season of our life, do not volunteer.

We used to. In fact, my husband, Ben, and I taught the Baptism prep class at our former parish. We assisted the youth leader for all youth events. We made meals for those who had surgeries or new babies. We were on leadership teams for retreats. And Ben lectured every other Sunday.

Our oldest daughter, Felicity, who is entering middle school, used to collect food and money for our parish St. Vincent de Paul Society. That is, before the pandemic happened to permanently close the food pantry. Each year, on her birthday, she would ask friends and family members to bring donations instead of a birthday gift, and then we’d collate everything and present it to the President of St. Vincent de Paul. 

We’ve spoken of serving Thanksgiving dinner at the local homeless shelter, of packaging sandwiches to distribute to lower socioeconomic neighborhoods with the Franciscan Center. We’ve discussed much but done nothing, if I’m honest.

I think most of us associate the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy with very literal acts. And, of course, they are. Or at least, they can be. And probably should be. But sometimes the Spiritual Works of Mercy are more hidden, invisible movements of grace that cannot be pegged in a neat list with bullet points.

There are days when I tote my kids to the grocery store, and one of them might compliment the cashier. On one occasion, Veronica even gave someone – a total stranger – a hug. And that person’s face completely changed. You see, as we know, everyone is carrying such heavy burdens anymore. No human’s psyche or body is designed to hold so much chronic stress. 

So I allow the Holy Spirit to guide us.

There are seasons in a family’s life when literal volunteering makes sense and is what they are called to do. For us, in this time and place, service begins at home. I am teaching my children about the importance of cooperation and respect, because I believe that what they learn here can be transferred to their lives outside these four walls. If they can learn what it means to be part of a team as a family, maybe they can use that skill to be of service in the workplace or church or non-profit organization.

I was once told that the Spiritual Works of Mercy are often more powerful than the Corporal Works of Mercy. Maybe that’s because they involve using our unique, personal gifts to touch someone else at their innermost pain. I often receive emails from people around the world who contact me for various reasons, and sometimes they are the ministering angels encouraging me. Sometimes I am the one to strengthen them or renew their hope.

Felicity belongs to a homeschool co-op, where she takes classes once a week and spends time with her peers. It’s interesting how all of the misfits find their way to her: the awkward teens with autism and motor tics, the shy first grader who has no one to sit with at lunch, the emo artist who scares everyone with her black eyeliner and hair. 

I think my kids are more apt to welcome people without fear, because they are growing up with a sibling who is visibly, noticeably, different from almost everyone they know. Because of Sarah’s multiple special needs related to her craniofacial condition of Apert Syndrome, the rest of the family recognizes the people who don’t quite fit in.

And they walk up to those people, smile, introduce themselves, and ask questions. They allow those kids to follow them on the playground, spend time with them, and maybe sit quietly with a crying child who has no other consolation. 

Aren’t these works of mercy? Aren’t these heroic acts of service?

How often do we see such love and kindness in our society these days? I can say that I do not. And my children are far from perfect. Like I said, we don’t engage in much outside the home, because Sarah’s care requires that I am away at doctor’s and specialist’s appointments on a regular basis. 

Families, in my view, can begin by listening to the Holy Spirit. I’ve discovered that the Spirit likes to be spontaneous, sometimes adventurous, almost always inconvenient when knocking on the doors of our hearts. Invitations and opportunities from God happen all the time. We just have to discipline ourselves to turn the ear of our heart toward Him, so that we can recognize when He is beckoning us to do something, to act.

Most of the time, the greatest act of service, the greatest mercy we can offer someone, is simply our presence. Loneliness and depression, due to isolation and loss of human contact, can only be met with love. We tend to make love into something grandiose, when in reality it can be so simple. And simple acts of love are profound and indelible to those who receive it.

I think that’s why, as a family, learning to tune in to the suffering of those around us is a good place to begin, if we really want to bring healing and hope to this lost and hurting world. Begin with a smile. Offer a listening ear. Lend a hand. Laugh with someone. Cry with them. Ask if they’d like a hug. These are all so incredibly straightforward that we overlook them altogether.

Yes, please, continue to bury the dead, to write letters to the prisoners or visit them with words of encouragement. Keep donating your clothes and coats to the refugees and veterans and addicts. Don’t be afraid to give to the person asking you for money. 

But also talk to them. Meet them face to face. After all, they are just like you – human, fallible, fallen. It might be the dignity you restore in them that matters most of all.