Grace.  It's a big word and a big concept.  It was a word that floated in the air around me from an early age growing up in the Midwest.  My town had just over a thousand people, and was surrounded by corn and soybean fields.  When coming in from the south, you saw farms and the white water tower with Iowa's silhouette hidden in the loop of the "R".  From the north, I would always crane my neck to try to see the boot nailed to the top of the telephone pole on the first corner of the town, then look left to gain sight of the yellow house with the Mansard roof.

From the time of still-a-single-digit in age, I was a part of the local 4H club, the Howard Rockets.  I loved the yearly Cabin Campout, which consisted of some time a few miles from town in a wood.  Iowa being prairie land, this small wood seemed like the wilderness, and to me it was beautiful.  As darkness overtook the sky, we'd go inside.  The older kids would take their place at the built-in benches which sat in a U around a wooden table. Each holding 52 cards, they'd play Nerts, just biding time until the Midnight Hike--a legendary experience consisting of tramping through creeks, under barbed wire, and catching their hearts in their throats as they went down drops.  Everyone would return with wet shoes, scratches, and stories--clothed the more in adventure for the darkness it took place under.

4H was all about learning to work with your hands, to communicate, to volunteer.   Each meeting we'd recite I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to better service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world. Hokey as it sounds, there was a definite vision in that pledge, a pledge to personal development for the sake of the larger community.  I was around 8 years old the first time I gave a speech in a 4H club meeting, and I remember no fear or intimidation.  Other club members giving speeches on how to properly wash hair and sew on buttons.  There was the communication contest each spring.  My first contest, I joined the poster category.  I don't remember the topic of the poster, but I recall painstakingly drawing out four globes the size of silver dollars.  I remember feeling so hurt when the judge didn't believe it was my own drawing. (Neither he/she nor I knew I'd be an art teacher less than 20 years later).

In the summer we'd volunteer at the ring toss to raise money for the club, and in the autumn, I remember helping out at the community Thanksgiving dinner.  As I entered junior high, a lot of free time began being spent at the church building site.  My church had met first in the elementary school, with the jungle mural visible each service, and then in the middle school before they bought land.  They had a vision that the church would build the ministry centre (they were always emphatic that we were the church, and the building was a building). Evenings or weekends, I'd go with my dad to lay plywood or mud walls.  Later when it was finished, I'd occasionally join other high schoolers serving at the reception of weddings.

These were acts of volunteerism, of grace.  They weren't heroic.  They were normal.  They were things my sisters and brother did, things that my classmates did, things that central Iowans did.  I remember my brother taking a trip to do kids' clubs on a Native American reservation in South Dakota one summer.  He returned shaken and spoke with earnestness of their situation, and he was struck that we could live so flippantly.  After he died, I went to the same reservation and saw what he meant.  Both his death and that visit to the reservation helped form my view that helping another person is really such a small thing, and it's hardly a sacrifice when life is viewed with a broader perspective.

As a teenager I went to help with English camps in the Czech Republic that were organized in cooperatively with people in the Czech Republic. The Americans would meet weekly beforehand, discussing lesson plans and cultural training.  Games were planned and suitcases packed with extra licorice, peanut butter, and chocolate chips.  The preparation and camps involved some work, some time investment, but they were also enjoyable; I was never taught that these things were mutually exclusive.  Sometimes Americans from the group were asked after teaching some lesson whether they were paid for these trips.  It was my first exposure to the cultural discrepancy around volunteerism between the Czech Republic and Iowa.

The Czech Republic hasn't been a democratic state for very long, and various political histories facilitated a lot of mistrust, a lot of tit-for-tat, a lot of suspicion, and plenty of questioning of gracious acts.  Though many things have changed since 1989, cultures and mindsets change slowly.  I do see among both among my friends and my students, however, things that make me believe that this mindset resistant to grace is melting away.  Many are keen to participate more in volunteering, but the opportunities are sometimes more difficult to find.  Yet they are found, as I've seen friends and colleagues and students become involved with ecological groups or raise money for things like Kola pro Afriku (Bikes for Africa) or to donate to food shelves and animal shelters.  Moreover, I see acts of simple grace from friends and roommates and colleagues, and I hope that their grace will ripple into the lives around them.

When I observe my young students, I always smile to see many hands fly into the air when I say "I need an art helper!"  Perhaps this is a petty example, but it's my hope that this eagerness to help another, to see helping as joyful and as a privilege will remain and strengthen as the years go.  Moreover, I hope that as the generations unfold, it will be easier and easer for people to believe something like grace exists and is real, that there are acts done out of purity and good will.  May these acts have a presence here as comfortable and normal as they were in a small Iowan town.


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