1.20.2009

Ordinary days of service

Days of service, like Martin Luther King's birthday has become, are a growing trend. Our Synod has had a youth "Helping Hands Day" for years. Toys for Tots collections, holiday food drives, even social media efforts like the @wellwishes campaign to raise money for clean water started by Twitter guru Laura "Pistachio" Fitton are springing up all over the landscape.

At Kairos we have started relationships with two local food pantries. Though we have participated in the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives, we have focused on also trying to be there in the "off-season," since the needs continue long after people move on from their holiday generosity. We have ongoing collections of food and donate funds each month, and have set up Labor Day food drives along with working in the pantry each month.

The social service agency leaders I've spoken with share this concern: With demand on a sharp increase, how do we get (and keep) people's attention and move them from occasional acts of generosity toward a regular practice of concern for needs in the community -- what President Obama in his Inaugural Address called "the price and promise of citizenship." We seem to be poised to take this call seriously.

Seth Godin captures this shift in service from occasion to practice in his recent blog post on the King National Day of Service. What if, rather than devoting one day a year, all 300 million Americans devoted an hour a day to changing the world?

If every person in the US spent an hour doing something selfless, useful and leveraged, what would happen? What if you and your circle committed to doing it an hour a day for a year? 300 million hours is a lot of hours for just one day, a year of that would change everything.

Seth -- a marketer who really gets the potential of ideas and causes to create change -- also calls for creativity in determining how people can be of service. Many of us who spend hours in soup kitchens and food pantries feel rewarded by the effort, yet struggle with how small our drops of labor are in the sea of suffering we are trying to alleviate. Seth affirms this "standing in the breach" labor, and issues a challenge to think about how people might leverage their skills to help agencies get better at meeting direct needs.

Imagine if foodies developed recipes and taught classes to help the clients of food pantries and soup kitchens learn to prepare and like healthy, balanced diets. Imagine if financiers and bankers taught basic financial literacy to high school students, the poor, and the fiscally clueless (like me!). Imagine if families took on the responsibility of educating (paying tuition, book and transportation costs) for the same number of children in a third-world country. Imagine if writers and bloggers spent time helping children learn to read and write. Imagine if every food pantry volunteer wrote one letter a day to a national or local leader demanding that more be done to end hunger. Think about it. What difference could you or I make?

We sit at the dawn of a new age, and a better world is possible. As President Obama has noted, he and his wife are not going to paint every homeless shelter or clean up every vacant lot in your neighborhood. We, the people, are going to have to do that. It will take each of us, using our blessings and talents as a spiritual discipline, to nibble away at these pressing problems bit by bit, day by day. The good news is that in doing so we will make the kingdom of God a bit more visible, right here and right now.

Update: Here's a great example -- Earl Stafford's "People's Inaugural Party" brings the underserved to the party, and equips them with ways to get a leg up. (HT: JR)

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