Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

What is it with our country??

Last night my friend in Missouri expressed her frustration over going to the gym, as she regularly does. "I hate all of these New Year's Resolution people!" she grumbled. Because of the New Year's Resolution crowd (that only comes the first of the year), she couldn't do her regularly scheduled routine on the treadmill.

As we were talking, I realized that it's not just New Years...our whole society is about one-time events.

At Christmas, everyone wants to give to the poor.

At Easter, everyone wants to go to church.

At Spring Break, Christian colleges want to take groups to "serve."

At the After-School Academy, we get offers that people want to teach a one-time class.

And Monday will be Dr. Martin Luther King day, which has been proclaimed a National Day of Service.

Now I suppose that one-time giving or one-time exercising or one-time serving is better than nothing....and, who knows, perhaps for a few (one or two??) it results in a long-term dedication. But, let's be honest. We are a self-gratifying society. We do these one time events for ourselves...not for anyone else. And when we are focused on ourselves, it doesn't last.

Take exercise. New Year's resolution..."Lose 10 lbs." with the implied "...so I can look better" ...instead of "focus on my overall health for the benefit of myself and others who love me and want me around in 30 years."

Easter. "Attend church." (it relieves guilt, I suppose...but I don't think the intention is really about deepening a long-term faith)

Christmas. "Deliver gifts to the poor and teach my child how to give to the 'less fortunate'." (have you ever thought about what it sounds like if you were to knock on someone's door to say, "Hi, I wanted to deliver gifts to the poor. I wanted my son to see you so he could see how fortunate he is.")

MLK Day of Service. "Go to a rough neighborhood...preferably a street named after MLK...because it will more than likely be in a run-down area (which makes no sense at all to me, but that's a completely different topic) and offer to pick up trash or paint houses or something."

I'm sure I sound a little cynical, but let me be honest here. Being in the non-profit world, I've heard people get frustrated when their offers to do one-time service are turned down. The leader of the group or the church leader will say, "You've got to let people come and serve. That's how they begin donating. That's how to get them involved. They want to connect with people. Don't just give them administrative tasks."

I agree with connecting with people. But I know those leaders haven't been on my end. For one, in the last two-three months, I have had probably 15 or more people say they wanted to volunteer at our After-School Academy...and seemed truly excited about it. I have set up special orientations to accomodate them. Each time, maybe one person shows up to the orientation...and some of them don't return after the orientation. I know...a few is better than none...believe me, we recognize that, which is why we continue creating special orientation sessions. Secondly, allow the people who are there all of the time to be involved with the children. When people come in randomly to volunteer, it's like having grandma over for the day...and we're left to do damage control after she's gone. The kids are there all of the time. They need people there all of the time...not just once out of a year. So, if you don't plan on coming regularly, please be willing to do the administrative tasks that we don't have time to do because we're busy structuring and keeping programs running.

I guess it's just tiring. And I guess that's part of being in a non-profit where we have to be dependent on volunteers...and part of being in a society that has been taught self-gratification.

So, I guess as we move into the Martin Luther King Day of Service, I don't want to discourage anyone from serving. But I would challenge you to ask yourself, "Who is this benefitting?" and then think through what Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about. Wasn't he about efforts that took a much longer time and effort to accomplish...efforts that weren't about themselves, but about the good of the much larger community?

Civil Rights was about personal sacrifice. The Montgomery Bus Boycott ...the Selma to Montgomery march (please click here to watch John Lewis's moving account of crossing the Edmond Pettis bridge)...the effort to gain equality for the Memphis Sanitation workers...the freedom rides...the March on Washington. All were about long-term solutions...and all required time, effort, and personal sacrifice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was about efforts that would result in systemic changes that benefitted people long term. How can we emulate that as we move forward in 2009?
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