Role of religion in community service


As instruments of the divine

Missionaries of Charity founded by Agnes G. Bojaxhiu, an Albanian, who became world famous as Mother Teresa of Kolkata, is inspired by the values of service as taught within religious orders of the Catholic church. Rendering service to the most needy is a prescribed path to salvation, and the members of the Order diligently follow on that path.

Similarly, religious leaders of various faiths also lead the way in philanthropic assistance and charitable activity to serve their respective flocks, and sometimes even for the aid of society at large. To organise relief in times of acute crises is a natural response for leaders who are looked up to as spiritual guides.

There are people who are glad about receiving such assistance from a religious charity because they experience the emotion of being tended to by God. Likewise, the people rendering the service are only too happy to strengthen the recipient’s belief in the goodness of divinity, and are gratified to be instrumental as God’s agents in touching the lives of sufferers.

The power of organised faith

There is also a perceived obligation on the part of large religious bodies to allocate some funds to community development and upliftment of the weakest sections of the community. This is because the bodies receive large sums of money aggregated from the members and must use a certain percentage usefully in the service of the community’s members, or even in a larger humanitarian cause. If there are biases that limit the access to the benefits to certain members, and restrict the availability for many others – this is a problem of coteries commonly associated with close-knit bodies whose workings are not necessarily transparent or democratic.

The history of such community service by religious bodies goes back to the association of the word “good” with the idea of “God”. Good is a state or condition allowed by God, and can be a gift from God. Good is a state associated with ease, comfort, peace, understanding and abundance.As such, religious bodies undertake regular programmes and special interventions to further these – they start hospitals and clinics, counselling centres, libraries and vocational training schools. They also work for literacy, health awareness and depression therapeutics.

Zeal is extreme but sometimes misplaced

The commonest problem associated with religious bodies is that they often are beset with narrow sectarianism or divisive propaganda. Too often, there’s an “Us” versus “Them” mentality that holds an isolationist view of its own members and their welfare, instead of an integrated view that sees them as inseparable from the populace of which they are actually a part. While it is possible to impart specialised knowledge and training and make your flock more economically competitive, their health and social harmony will always be in a social interdependence with everyone else in the habitats ( town, village, district) where they live.

Since many members of monastic orders, regardless of whether they are Kagyu, Sufi, Digambar, Franciscan,Varkari, or Nabodwip, usually have a higher level of integrity than the average, and are altruistic both by temperament and training, they are capable of high levels of effort and commitment than is ordinarily possible for other community workers. These men and women are more single-minded in the pursuit of social development and disaster mitigation.

While they perform in the spirit of “Manav Seva is Madhav Seva” ( service to humanity is the service of God ), commentators who laud their contribution however point out that they must not hold reciprocal expectation of a theological kind from the people they serve. It should not be used as an opportunity for catechism or conversion or to obtain other forms of belief commitments. The service to a human being in distress is already a divine act in itself, and is not to be followed up with initiatives of lesser or pettier motive.

Working from a different plane for social progress

Religious orders are not like business enterprises which constantly seek to increase their customer base, and conduct incentive and loyalty reward programmes etc. If they adopt these worldly measures, then they would lose an important dimension that has hitherto kept them unique.

A deep and lofty faith inspires people to hold concern for their fellow beings, and to remember that the gift of life is an experience they are to share with their family, their clan, their neighbours, other inhabitants of the planet.

This is an experience where fellow feeling has a place, as do the instincts to give and take help, to utilise the strength of collective action, and to apply the power of faith to come through a crisis. These attributes are the reason for religious people of all creeds to play an important role in the sphere of community service.


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November 21, 2016

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