Yesterday, I was watching a football (soccer for all of you Americans) game between service-users from Waddington Street Centre and psychiatric patients from a nearby hospital. Since I have a tear in the cartilage in my knee, I was standing along the sidelines, admonishing myself for not being able to serve the members by playing or refereeing.
I was kicking a ball between my feet, but it escaped me and rolled over to one of the patients standing on the sideline. One of his eyelids seemed exhausted draped over his eye, and his arms were covered in what looked like long white tally marks. Without saying a word, he passed the ball back to me. Again, my clumsiness sent the ball in his direction, and again, he returned it. Without exchanging a single word, we began a game of sorts, passing back and forth for around 10 minutes. And while I might have imagined it, I think a smile introduced itself to his face for a mere moment.
Through this incident and my time at Waddington, I’ve begun to see service as a different reality than what I had previously imagined. In the past, service was always defined as meeting a physical need. While this is entirely noble and necessary, there are other ways to serve populations. “Being with” is sometimes just as important as “doing with.” Among vulnerable adult populations, such as those with persistent mental illness that are served at Waddington Street Centre, one of the greatest atrocities in their lives has been constant stigma and dehumanization. Some are told by their families that they are worthless; some are told in their workplaces that they cannot contribute; and some are told in their minds that there is no hope. To overcome all of these obstacles, there are physical and political steps which must be taken. However, sometimes, service is just listening and understanding.
And sometimes service is kicking a soccer ball.