Last Friday, The Dallas Morning News published a piece I originally intended to post here in its Op-Ed section.
Taking the advice of several friends, I'll post it here:
King’s True Legacy: Justice not Volunteering
Several years ago lots of people got the idea that the best way to celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday was to organize a special day of community service.
You've likely heard it: "Not a day off, but a day on!" The idea being that the best way to honor Dr. King's memory and legacy would be discovered in organized volunteer efforts to extend compassion and aid to the less fortunate among us.
Here at Central Dallas Ministries we manage a rather large AmeriCorps program, so we received word from the Corporation for National Service that directed programs like ours all across the nation to orchestrate volunteer projects. Certainly nothing wrong with that.
I picked up on the same sentiment this week at the website of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Here's part of the post:
"President Bush marked the Martin Luther King Jr. King holiday by volunteering and calling on Americans to honor King’s legacy by showing compassion on the holiday and throughout the year.
"The President and First Lady Laura Bush joined dozens of volunteers at the Martin Luther King Jr. library as they repaired and shelved books and taught lessons about King’s life to children. More than a half million Americans are serving in 5,000 King Day of Service projects across the country.”
Here in Dallas, we enjoyed the commentary of popular Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow, who bemoaned the lack of organized community volunteer opportunities on this special day of national service ("Ready to go, nowhere to serve," January 20, 2008).
Don't get me wrong.
I'm all for seeing folks volunteer.
I believe in the value of community service.
Nothing beats genuine compassion and concern for others, especially those who are down and out, ill, mistreated, marginalized and neglected.
But, in my opinion, the continuing and growing effort to link the memory of Dr. King to a day of volunteering diminishes the real significance of his life, to say nothing of how badly it misses the mark in understanding his personal mission.
Dr. King didn't call folks to volunteer to help the poor. He wanted to know why so many people were poor in a nation of such opulence and wealth.
So far as I know, Dr. King never organized a food pantry or invited the rich to serve in soup kitchens. He asked hard questions about the meaning of hunger and homelessness to our collective, national soul.
He didn't call for mentors and volunteer projects in our public schools. No, Dr. King asked penetrating questions about the quality of education for all of our children.
Dr. King didn't just invite people to visit the hospitals where soldiers were returning home with severe injuries and lifelong disabilities caused by a terrible conflict in Southeast Asia. He asked why the war needed to continue at all.
He didn't wonder why more health care professionals weren't volunteering in indigent clinics. He challenged the nation to adopt a just universal health care policies to insure that every American received adequate and routine treatment.
The kinds of volunteer opportunities that Dr. King invited people to take part in often landed them in jail, not on the front page of the society section!
He asked people to march, to register to vote, to sit in, to resist and to confront systemic injustice and unfair laws. He asked people to lay down their very lives for the sorts of changes that made the American system better for everyone. His program didn't seek to simply meet needs. His vision called for the elimination of need.
Certainly, I see and often champion the value of community service. However, to redefine Dr. King's life and legacy in those terms limits his importance and drains his message of its power. And, frankly, such an emphasis lets us all off the hook when it comes to the fundamental and sweeping public policy changes still needing our attention and the full expression of our courage as a people.