A life of service doesn’t need the affirmation of religion

    (Big Stock)

    (Big Stock)

    Joe Burke was not a close friend of mine, but I find myself deeply moved and saddened by his death. Joe represented something to me I have a hard time explaining. Joe’s was a true life of service.

    Joe Burke, who died on Sunday, was not a close friend of mine. We served together for many years on the board of a family therapy center, but we were never personally close and never spent much personal time together. But I find myself deeply moved and saddened by his death.

    Partly it’s because as I approach my 65th year I find myself thinking more and more about the future, and how short I’m afraid it might be. But mostly, it’s because Joe represented something to me I have a hard time explaining. Joe’s was a true life of service, of making the choice to be of help to others with every waking moment (or, I suppose, almost every waking moment).

    Joe committed to such a life through becoming a Christian Brother, the Catholic order that runs LaSalle University (where Joe for a time was provost and president) and whose members were also my teachers at West Catholic Boys High School in Philadelphia. For most of his professional life Joe, who had a Ph.D. in Human Behavior, was a psychologist, and led the Psychology Dept. at LaSalle, where he launched countless young people to careers in the helping professions.

    In all of my interactions with Joe, I was touched by his generosity, his genuineness, his gentleness. His impact on me was far greater than he ever knew. I was attracted to his somewhat-skeptical approach to God, typical of many Christian Brothers; but also by the sense that here was a Good Man, someone who was fully present in his own life and dedicated to helping others.

    Joe’s passing has brought back to mind an encounter I had with a visiting Franciscan monk in my mid-twenties, when I was working as an administrator at an Episcopal church on the Penn campus. The monk, with whom I only spent a few hours and whose name I actually don’t even remember, somehow got me talking about what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, even though I had been married and already come out as gay, I was still toying with the possibility of choosing a religious life: as a working class Catholic boy growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was the dream of all parents that their sons would join the priesthood. I shared these thoughts with the visiting monk, who somehow got me ruminating on what I thought life would be like if I joined a religious order.

    I remember stumbling in my answer. I was too agnostic to comfortably talk about my belief in God, which was somewhat vague at the time; I was more clear that I wanted to spend my life working for the betterment of society, since my Penn student days had totally turned me off to the idea of working in business solely for the almighty dollar. I think I was reduced to something as banal as saying that I wanted to help people, especially people who couldn’t help themselves. And that I thought that would be easier and more acceptable a choice if I was wearing the collar of a religious order.

    This was the ’70s. Moral certainty was out of fashion, and the visiting monk seemed unthreatened by my confusion. But I could tell he was skeptical. Why, he asked, did I associate working for the benefit of others with donning religious garb? Why did I think I needed to be ordained to do that? What was so special about a clerical collar?

    His skepticism stuck with me. Why, in fact, was I even considering a life as a religious when so many of my personal choices already conflicted with that life? Was I really willing to sacrifice those choices to join a religious order? Why did I need the collar to do good works, anyway?

    It was in answering that last question that I made the decision that would determine almost all of my future choices in life. I had to admit that what I wanted was the collar, not necessarily the faith. I wanted the brand of the “good person,” to make it easier for me to believe I was one, and to ensure the good will of those around me. As a priest, or a minister, or a monk, people would assume I was a good guy.

    My now-unnamed visiting advisor had forced me to decide: Could I try, at least, to be a good guy without the affirmation of God, of an organized religion, of a collar? Could I just choose to live a life of service, not one in service? Could I commit myself to try to do good, without the brand that made it more permissible?

    I ultimately chose not to join the priesthood. But I also decided I’d try to live the life of a do-gooder priest, without the religious cover and without the Almighty Collar. I decided to dedicate my work to helping those less fortunate that I was myself. And somehow I’ve made a living trying to stay true to that commitment.

    Joe Burke chose to don the collar, even though it was the somewhat forked one of a Christian Brother. He was a good man. He did good works. He spent almost every minute of every day trying to help those less fortunate than he. He believed in God, and demonstrated it always.

    And I have to admit — in all the years I knew him, I never saw him in a collar.

    In a career spanning 40 years, David Fair has worked in various capacities to help people with HIV, the homeless, children with mental illness and children in foster care.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.