The Way of Soulful Service


Hitchhiking To Alaska: The Way of Soulful Service

How can spiritual practice (whether or not it is formally religious) help me to help others better? How can I “hang in there” in service, when the going gets tough? How can I grow in faith through service? How can I go deeper in helping relationships?
In this guide to soulful service, Jim Burklo draws from his deep well of experience working with homeless people, leading service-learning programs for university students, and pastoring churches. With touching stories, poetry, and parables, Hitchhiking to Alaska illustrates universal principles about the spirituality of helping relationships. It shatters facile assumptions about what it means to serve. It inspires people of all religions, or of no faith affiliation, to aim higher in their works of service.

Hitchhiking to Alaska is recommended reading for anyone in any kind of helping relationship. It is particularly useful for service-learning professionals and students in secondary and higher education, and for leaders and volunteers in religious congregations and faith-based service organizations.

“Jim Burklo’s Hitchhiking to Alaska : The Way of Soulful Service is a must-read for those interested in exploring the intersection between service, learning and meaning-making. Through stories and thoughtful prose, Burklo offers a loving critique of our common preconceived notions about service and artfully presents a framework for engaging in ethical and meaningful action. I know of no other person who could better blend deep intellectual explorations with rich spiritual questions through such powerful story telling. Pick-up the book and begin hitchhiking to a more profound way of seeing service.” Kent Koth, Director, Center for Service and Community Engagement, Seattle University, and Director, Seattle University Youth Initiative

“Written with raw heart energy fueled by years of disciplined reflection and practice. Whether you are Christian or not, read this book when you are close to burn-out and ready to quit your job in the good works department.” Dr. Ulrike Wiethaus, Professor of Religion and American Ethnic Studies, Wake Forest University

“In this powerful and provocative book, Jim Burklo brings to life the faces of those whom we so easily marginalize, and in the process redefines the spiritual life.” (retired) Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.


What Is Service?

(The chapter headings of Hitchhiking to Alaska ) Service is honoring the dignity of the other. Service is seeing those who are unseen. Service is listening. Service is asking questions, helping each other refine our stories until they ring true. Service is taking, as well as giving, gracefully. Service is letting go of attachments. Service is social change, not just personal charity. Service is persistence and faithfulness and patience. Service is grace that redefines and regenerates justice. Service is healing, not just curing. Service is empowering people and nurturing community, building social capital. Service is living in paradox: entering impossible situations and staying awake to unintended consequences. Service is being with, not just doing for, others.


“Having a higher goal than our immediate intentions serves us in building a better world. Knowing we are hitchhiking to Alaska gets us to Seattle quicker, and with a better attitude. It delivers us to the holy compassion at the heart of service.”

“Dignity or bread:
don’t make me choose!
Too often the bread of charity
is baked in the shape of chains.
But the aroma of justice
makes the heart hungry
and unlocks the fetters of the soul.”

“I have discovered that the skills required for me to be aware of the states of my own mind and body are also essential in listening and responding sensitively to other people. I may not be a success in fixing all the problems of the people I aim to serve, any more than I can solve all my own. But in the process of trying, I can have loving, caring, soul-satisfying relationships. To attend to others lovingly, to accept them as they are, to be present with them fully – this enables me to be more useful to them. It leads me out of selfishness and into the heart of the divine.”

“No matter how good our government policies might be, no matter how strong a “social safety net” we weave – and in America we’ve got a lot of weaving yet to do – there will be times when love must trump the rules. Being of service leads us to take graceful action above and beyond the written and unwritten rules by which our society functions. And we trust that our acts of grace will lead by example, pressing for change in the system.”

Below is the introduction to a “Jim Burklo’s Hitchhiking to Alaska : The Way of Soulful Service” – a book about spirituality and service.

One day in the early 1970’s, my high school buddies Rock and Doug went to the freeway on-ramp in Santa Cruz, California, and stuck out their thumbs. They were headed for adventure in the great Northwest. Rock held out a cardboard sign that said “SEATTLE”. Lots of time and many cars passed by. In a flash of frustration-fed inspiration, Rock turned the sign around and wrote ALASKA on it, and held it up. Very shortly, a car pulled over. They hopped in and began their journey north. It seemed that aiming higher helped them to get closer.

I stuck out my thumb and headed down the road of service and activism as a teenager. With great ceremony at the time of the first Earth Day, a group of us at our high school buried an internal combustion engine (from a lawnmower), indicating our distaste for the pollution it caused. (I’m sure the old engine poisoned the earth around it with its oil and heavy-metal residues. Happily, we didn’t bury it in the organic vegetable garden we planted on the campus.) At age 16, I was appointed to a federal student advisory commission on the environment, a group made up mostly of radicalized graduate students. We traveled to university campuses and mobilized students to push for clean air and water laws. My high school friends and I became activists, pressing for local environmental preservation and protesting against the Vietnam War.

I went with my church youth group to Tijuana and Ensenada in Mexico to fix-up and paint-up schools and orphanages. I burned inside with commitment to do all in my power to end the kind of grinding poverty I witnessed there. Surely we could end poverty in America, if not south of the border!

Those were days when millions of young people like myself, around the world, rose up to challenge “the system”. A confluence of events led us to question authority and dump the dominant paradigm. “Any day now, any time now, I shall be released,” sang Bob Dylan. “Up against the wall!” howled Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane. I came of age in a time when we assumed that justice and peace and environmental restoration were within our reach, any day now, any time now. “Any day now” turned into years.

“Any time now” turned into decades. Poverty still exists. Local pollution has been abated, but global warming has accelerated. Peace is elusive, even after all the protest actions into which we poured our souls. Vietnam, then Central America, then Iraq, then Afghanistan took the headlines of conflicts in which America was embroiled. Some of us lost patience and gave up.

Some of us lost faith not only in the government we had back in the day, but in the potential of any government to do right by its people, ever. Some of us gave up on public affairs and focused entirely on private affairs. Some of my peers, who once counted themselves in the counterculture, got high-paying high-tech jobs, bought Porsches, and espoused libertarian views. The “party of no” that stands in the way of political and social progress in America today has its roots partly in the disappointment that followed those “any day now” days of the 1960’s.

Whether by virtue of our own virtue, or just by the grace of URFKAG, the Ultimate Reality Formerly Known As God, others of us hung in there. Maybe we were just too stubborn to give up, but I like to think that at least some of us figured out that the journey wasn’t just to Seattle. Rather, it was going to be a very long and bumpy hitchhike to Alaska.
The road ahead was not just to victory in a particular campaign at a particular moment in history. Rather, the road ahead was being carved out of the wilderness through attraction to a higher goal. Challenges, victories, and failures along the way were blazed trees and stone cairns marking a much longer journey toward spiritual self-realization. What we once saw as the ends of our efforts were really the means by which we could grow in compassion and widen in consciousness, both as individuals and as a society.

Having a higher goal than our immediate tasks helps us to achieve our immediate tasks. Knowing we are hitchhiking to Alaska gets us to Seattle quicker, and with a better attitude.

Click here to Purchase “Hitchhiking to Alaska”

JIM BURKLO Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo

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