“We have souls:” Developing a School Culture of Service

“We have Souls” – Grace Chang


Two comments have resonated within me in recent months as I continue to explore and marvel why service activities here at Hong Kong International School regularly produce life-altering revelations within our students.  The first and most powerful comment comes from a 9th grader student named Grace Chang.  Following last November’s Humanities class trip to an orphanage in southern China, our class was discussing what we had really accomplished in a mere three days of visits.  Why, I pushed further, do we not simply give up when we are barraged with the overwhelming needs all around us – when we watch the news, when we pick up a newspaper . . . or when we visit a country with an endless number of healthy baby girls abandoned simply because of their gender?  I repeated: why don’t we give up?  Silence . . .  a long pause. Then from the right hand corner of the room, Grace broke the silence with a voice of conviction, almost exasperation, “WE HAVE SOULS.”

I have continued to ponder the power of Grace’s remark in the weeks and months since she made her bold declaration.  Her three words spoke to me of the journey I’ve taken in my classes over the last 15 years.  As a teacher, I knew I had a soul and I knew somewhere my students did, too, but how could we make education a soulful experience?  How could my teaching soul meet the souls of my students?

The answer I have come to is offering service experiences.  Service brings to the surface that which lies within: our very souls.  As Bo Lozoff, who runs a “prison-monk” program in American prisons, says: “The cause of all of our problems, personal and political, can be summed up in a single sentence: human life is very deep, and our modern lifestyle is not.”

And so my journey with service over the last 15 years at the Hong Kong International School has been marked by  a descent into soulfulness.  I have found that contrary to what appears most obvious about teenagers, the souls of my students are indeed very deep.  Many of them sense the superficiality and moral bankruptcy of aspects of modernity.  I feel drawn to trust that they will respond to service with souls far larger than I had imagined.

The second comment which that came to me following Grace’s comment was a quote I had taught about years earlier by 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “The heart knows a thousand things that reason does not know.”  Pascal spoke universally to the truth that Grace gave voice to.  As educators we often speak of educating the heart and we dearly want to “draw out” of our students those good things from within.  Our teaching in those four restricting walls of our classrooms, however, often limits us to the reason domain; we miss out on the heart knowledge that knows so very much.  How do we touch the heart in the classroom?  I’ve surrendered to the belief that for most students I can’t; or I can do it so much more effectively and even easily with out-of-the-classroom service experiences.

Growth in HKIS Service Experiences in the 1990’s

My commitment to service was born out of a complete absence of my own service experiences in my educational experience growing up.  Only the coalescing of a constellation of experiences once I became a professional changed my thinking ever so slowly.  In 1990 I graduated from Concordia University – Seward in the US and gladly accepted a position at the Hong Kong International School teaching Social Studies.  Having taught English in the summer of 1987 in Beijing, I was thrilled to return to Asia.  Within the first month, a veteran teacher asked me to co-lead a trip of 20 students to an orphanage in Pattaya, Thailand.  Three trips and three years later I knew there was power in our short time at the orphanage.  I decided that our school needed something closer to Hong Kong – a place we could visit more regularly.

In March, 1995 I led my first trip to an orphanage in the southern Chinese city of Foshan.  Once again, I noticed the same effect: whether students were life-long residents of Hong Kong or newcomers, Asian or Western, male or female, freshmen or seniors, spending time with orphans for a week was a transformative event.  As a teacher, I yearned to find that “elixir” – that transformative power that I could pass onto them in my classroom.  What I worked so hard to achieve in a classroom and only very occasionally saw evidence of seemed to come predictably and effortlessly in a weekend of holding an orphan in China.  Yet the power of the experience still wasn’t something I had “eyes to see and ears to hear.”  It wasn’t until my third year in China that I  realized I could trust the “magic” that the orphans brought my students.

While my orphanage work started to take shape, service at HKIS more generally also took a positive turn in 1996.  My principal, Jim Handrich, called my wife and myself into his office one day and suggested that we start an ongoing service program at the school in Hong Kong on Saturdays.  We reflexively defended our “Day of Giving” program, a one-day event in which all students went out into the community to participate in some type of service – beach clean-up, visit to a kindergarten, etc.  But the more Jim talked, the more we knew he was right – ongoing programs could be far more meaningful for our students and for our community partners than a one-off event.  Thus, Service on Saturday was born in 1997 with six Saturday programs.

Re-Reading the Gospels

A final essential personal piece of my own personal journey was teaching Biblical Studies on a daily basis.  As a young teacher re-reading the Gospels and putting my ideas on the line daily with students, I had to struggle with the meaning of the texts.  Now in Asia and working with orphans, teaching about poverty, and being confronted with the brokenness of society, I began to explore the human, socially-active Jesus of the Gospels.  His concept of the Kingdom of God  – as this signature Lukan passage proclaims – announced a new type of spiritual community that would “preach good news to the poor . . . , release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (4:18-19).  That acceptable year is a reference to the Jubilee Year when debts were canceled, slaves were freed, the land lay fallow, and land redistribution was to occur to re-establish economic equity between the haves and the have-nots.  Most Christian students found this human portrait of Jesus expanded their faith life as the contemplated “what Jesus would do” in society.  My non-Christian students found this portrait of Jesus very compelling as well, a social radical that gave his life for his convictions.

It is no exaggeration to say that my fire and energy for service grew apace with my understanding of Jesus’ own fire and energy for the Kingdom of God, which included care for widows, orphans, the poor, and all those left behind in society.   When I came across the NIV translation of Jesus’ statement in John 14:18, “I will not leave you as orphans,” I understood anew what Jesus meant when I saw my students’ painful departure from the orphanage. When I read Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 25, “If you have done it to the least of my brothers, you have done it unto me,” I began to see service as worship. Doing service meant I was imitating and even experiencing Jesus, the center of my faith life. These spiritual insights meant that I wasn’t simply doing good for others; I was following Christ, worshiping Christ, pursuing the mystery of God in Christ through service.  Perhaps the biblical view of service as a cosmic event explained my students’ overwhelming response to their experiences.

From Community Service to Service Learning

The next big jump in my understanding of the role of service in the school occurred in 1997 when a colleague and myself visited Ateneo High School, a top Jesuit school outside of Manila, Philippines.  I was very impressed with a required Senior economics, sociology and theology course that prepared young men and women to give back to their country.  The vision the course represented was so appealing that I returned to HKIS feeling called to start such a course at our school.

By 1997 our school had developed significant service programs, but they were all extracurricular.  They were what we may call “community service.”  However, what Ateneo introduced to me was a far better way – the integration of service into the formal classroom setting.  This intentional attempt for students to study (in the classroom), experience (out of the classroom), and reflect on both ways of knowing is true “service learning.”  Schools are about learning: service needs to reside at the center of school life, not the periphery.

Taking our cue from Ateneo, I proposed a series of new courses.  In the year 2000, a senior elective, “Service, Society, and the Sacred,” was introduced.  In 2002, “World Cultures in Action,” a double-period core 9th grade Humanities course that puts a vision of service at its center was created.  In 2003, a Biblical Studies course, “Word and World” was developed.  In Romans 12:2, Paul speaks of “not be[ing] conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  While any type of service touched the heart, schools need to be about “renewing the mind.”  Bringing service into the curriculum offered students a chance to develop “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

At present we, then, we have 4 sections of the renamed “Humanities I in Action.”  That means that this year 40% of our 9th grade students are having a Service Learning experience in their first full year of high school.  This year we have 3 sections of “Word and World” and 1 section of “Service, Society, and the Sacred.”  In all, 18% of our students were enrolled in these courses.  This means that while we have had some successes in the Humanities area, we haven’t even begun to explore service possibilities in Mandarin classes (e.g., welcoming new Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong), computer classes (e.g., teaching our skills to those who haven less training) psychology and sociology classes (e.g., counseling marginal youth).

Let me, then, summarize the changes that have occurred at HKIS in service in the last 14 years:

Year 1991 1997 2000 2004
Community Service Offerings Day of Giving(One day/year) 7 SOS Programs (@14 times/year) 12 SOS Programs 16 Programs
# of Service-Related “Interims” (annual field trip in March) 1 Trip 8 Trips 14 Trips 14 Trips
# of Service-Related Clubs  3 Clubs 3 Clubs Not available 14 Clubs
Service Learning Courses None None One Three(one core Humanities course)

The chart reveals a number of trends:

  • The number of extracurricular service clubs stayed roughly constant in the 1990’s.  However, in the last few years we have seen an explosion of service-related clubs as students’ creativity expresses itself in the new culture of service at the school.
  • The SOS and Interims programs have perhaps reached a “saturation” point. This suggests that we turn our attention to grow more in the area of Service Learning.
  • Service started as an extracurricular program and has grown slowly into the curricular offerings.

Here, then, is another chart that shows the trends over time:

Frequency of Service Role in School Program Examples
1. Short term; episodic Extracurricular Day of Giving; a few Interims; clubs and fundraising
2. Long term; ongoing Extracurricular SOS program; more Interims; clubs and fundraising
3. Long term; ongoing; Curricular and extracurricular Service Learning courses in addition to other programs

Moving from step one to step two brought a huge increase in the numbers of programs as well as the number of students exposed to community service.  Quality of programs has also significantly improved.  This chart also suggests that the growth area in the future is the quality of curricular service learning programs.

Student Voices

In the end, the most important evidence of success for teachers usually comes from what we see happen in the lives of our students.  Every year students find their own voice in describing what service means to them.  Examples abound in our reflections, but here are a few highlights.

“Service scars you in the most beautiful way possible.”

–       Bethany, a junior girl who visited the Foshan orphanage

“Service is keeping humanity alive through beauty, love, and tolerance.”

–       Ji E, freshman girl after visiting the Foshan orphanage

“Service is the art of healing the world and, in healing the world, so too do I heal myself.”

–       Yang Ming, senior boy after visiting the Foshan orphanage

While many of our students themselves are fairly secular, their service experiences push them to reach for spiritual language to communicate their experiences:

“The first time that I realized I truly believed in God was in the Philippines, participating in my very first Habitat for Humanity workcamp . . . .  My soul has been hungry for the last 18 years and by God I’m feeding it.”

–       Lisa, a senior who started our Habitat for Humanities chapter

“Serve society because it is sacred.”

–       Kailee, senior girl who had been adopted from Korea

“Something inside of me that had always been in a state of flux is now at rest.”

–       Yvonne, describing how her baptism while at university was the capstone of a spiritual journey initiated through service.

The Way Forward for Schools Getting Started

Given our experience, I offer a few suggestions to schools that want to grow in their service involvement:

  1. Find a small group of administrators and faculty that are willing to invest in creating service opportunities for students.
  2. Provide service trips and experiences that will generate strong student excitement and will get the service word “out” in the school community.  (All our programs are completely voluntary.)
  3. Develop ongoing service options which have a great degree of variety.
  4. Carefully screen and choose student leaders who will shoulder much of the organizational burden of a community service program.

Some Future Goals for Service at HKIS:

For schools that already have some service offerings, here are some ideas we are thinking about at HKIS to develop and deepen what we have now:

  1. Could an entire class level adopt a specific region where they not only provide service to that area, but also study it in an interdisciplinary way and can be actively involved in its development?
  2. Could a “rite of passage” at HKIS be the building of a Habitat for Humanity house for every 9th grade class?
  3. Could students design and implement their own service and research projects instead of having the school provide the structure?
  4. Could service be integrated not only into the Humanities curriculum, but into other disciplines as well?


Our students yearn for a soulful educational experience.  They want integrated learning opportunities that balance serious study with meaningful service experiences.  For us as Christian teachers, such an integral vision of society is deeply rooted in our tradition.  When Jesus was asked which of the 613 Torah laws was the most important, he answered with a integral, multi-faceted vision with a service application: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . .  And a second one like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This, then, is our calling as Christian teachers.  We must look deep within our individual and institutional souls, and search out integrated, holistic and spiritually engaging learning experiences.  Our students’ souls are very large, if only we can find authentic experiences to match.

[Author’s note: This article was written in 2005 for Schoolink, a publication of the Lutheran Education Association in Australia.  This article summarizes the development of service from 1990 when the author began teaching at HKIS until 2005.]

Reference for article:

Schmidt, M.E. (2005). ‘We have souls:’ Developing a school culture of service. Lutheran Education Association [Australia]. Schoollink,11, 1.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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One Response to “We have souls:” Developing a School Culture of Service

  1. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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