Reflections on a Homeless Shelter Service: Des Moines, Ames, IA
By Divine Grace or the result of past good deeds, one can gain association with pure devotees who, like signposts on the highway of life, draw one’s attention to higher ideals. This happened to me after we moved to Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer of 2001. My wife started inquiring about a music teacher for our daughter, and she found someone who did more than teach music. It was a favorable deal for us because the teacher introduced us to Sathya Sai Baba and to the idea of selfless service. Because you see, she offered music lessons as a service, free of charge.
Service to me connotes something noble, an act of giving or helping others. Service in any form is an opportunity to pay back to society all the benefits conferred by it on us. If performed with the correct attitude, service will give us joy, peace, and spiritual uplift. It is no wonder that all faiths encourage their followers to participate in service projects.
An Attitude of Gratitude Develops
When a service project was first organized every month by our Sathya Sai Center around 1998, I did not take much interest other than signing up to contribute some items. I viewed it more like a “have to do,” “because Swami said so,” than anything else – akin to being a child and having to do things because “Mom says so.”
Over time, though, I began to understand why it is important to participate in service projects. What started out as an attitude of helping the less fortunate slowly transformed into gratitude for being able to do it. Combined with Sathya Sai Baba’s other teachings that emphasized the divinity in all, my sphere of service expanded, and I began to see opportunities to serve everywhere, not limited to our Center’s monthly service at the local church. Even the chores I did around the house became service offerings in my mind and were appreciated by my wife and children (who are divine embodiments, too, of course) – and there also developed a healthy by-product of peace and harmony in the household.
“Love All, Serve All”
The service project at our Sai Center is carried out once a month at a local church, by cooking and serving food for about 40 people. We refer to it as “Narayana Seva,” which means, literally, “serving God.”1 I saw that the downtrodden were also people like me who would like to live with dignity. They might have fallen on hard times, either by circumstances beyond their control or their own choices. Either way, they appreciate it when people cared for them and feed them. Most of them say “thank you” before leaving. Some of them stay for seconds and even take leftovers with them in empty containers. When I realized that our roles easily could have been switched by fate, I began to show love and compassion spontaneously, as if I were serving myself or a dear family member or friend.
“Ceiling on Desires” 2
An important lesson driven straight to my heart by the service project is that of counting my own blessings. Seeing so many struggling for the most basic needs, such as food, I realized that I do not have any real needs to be taken care of, but only wants. I vowed not to complain about anything and instead to remain happy with what I have. This gave me a whole new understanding and reverence for Sai Baba’s instructions to reduce wants and to place a “ceiling on desires.”
Our Sai group serves on the 2nd Saturday of every month, and various church groups and organizations cover all the other days. We noticed that meat was served on most other days, while we served only vegetarian food. This led to a Center debate about whether we should serve the staple foods that they might prefer rather than what we wished to serve, according to our diets. The prevailing short answer was, “Swami said so,” (maintain a vegetarian diet) but doubts still lingered, until one day a lady thanked us for serving meatless food, which was different, good, and appreciated. This made us feel that Sai Baba had been invisibly listening to our debates and then kindly cleared our doubts, putting us all at ease.
Recently we started having the older Sai Spiritual Education (SSE) kids participate in this service project by letting them serve and clean up. It is a delight to watch them do their assigned tasks with gusto. Adult members still handle the buying of ingredients, cooking, and transportation. The SSE students are all good kids, and I hope and pray that as they grow and become young adults they will continue to hold to the spirit of service. The service project brings together the Sai family for a common, noble act, where the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
This may sound strange, but I began noticing that just watching acts of service made me feel good. Even being neither the donor nor recipient, it still seemed to affect me positively. I daresay that some of the acts I have witnessed just within our extended Sai group have brought tears of joy to my eyes – no easy feat, considering how stoic I usually am.
Sai Baba stresses that true service is self-less. To me, this means that giving service is not about “me” or “my glory” – yet it is about my self-transformation. I gain more than I give in the end, in terms of joy and peace. By cultivating the spirit of service and practicing the human values of truth, right conduct, love, peace, and nonviolence, I believe we can slowly but surely realize the innate divinity that Sai Baba vouchsafes we are all endowed with.
Sathya Sai Baba Center of Des Moines, IA
1“Service to Man Is Service to God”- discourse by Sathya Sai Baba: http://www.sssbpt.info/ssspeaks/volume37/sss37-01.pdf
2“Ceiling on Desires”- discourse by Sathya Sai Baba: http://www.sssbpt.info/ssspeaks/volume16/sss16-03.pdf